Thursday, September 18, 2014

Know Shit

A knock-on effect of the ethical challenges facing DeKalb County politicos has been a recent War of Word. And that word is: transparency.

One contender to the throne that until recently had been kept warm by Ms. Boyer is pledging an open checkbook register. OK. A sitting Councilman with a deserved reputation for informing citizens wherever possible felt compelled to re-iterate in a personal testimony. When ARE the next elections? A former City Councilman has suggested that if Dunwoody would only throw open the kimono the world would be delighted at how transparent this City really is. Really?

Perhaps not so much.

But to be fair there really isn't a great example for Dunwoody or it's citizens to learn by as opacity is the first tool all politicians use to manipulate whatever truths they are forced to concede. As a public service (as you well know, we at The Other Dunwoody are all about public service) let's look at things that would make Dunwoody an exemplar of transparency:

  • You MUST be proactive. This is not only the cornerstone of any transparent organization it is required to establish and maintain trust with stakeholders.  This must become such a part of the City's DNA that it would never need to respond to FOI request because the information is already in the public domain. 
  • You MUST be prompt. Data and documents must be published within 24 hours of trigger event (e.g., signing a contract) or acquisition of data or documents.
  • Publish data in machine readable form. Alternative publications are fine, but when data are involved machine readable is table stakes. 
  • Publish "easy data" quickly and frequently. Easy data are readily acquired or delivered, usually electronically and require no curation or redaction. An example would be call detail records on all City land lines and cell phones. And of course this includes "the checkbook."
  • Publish curated data on a routine basis but as frequently as possible. These are data that require some level of redaction with a good example being traffic citations where it may not be appropriate to publish some of the offender information.
  • Publication of triggered event information sets must be comprehensive. A triggered event is something like a successful contract negotiation at which point all related information (memo's, meeting agenda/minutes, call records, etc.) are published as a package even if those data and documents that may have already been published.
  • Routine internal operational reports must be published at regular intervals which at the very least should be 7 calendar days before City Council meetings. These reports should include internal staff reports as well as work-related correspondence with vendors. 
This level (which TOD considers a minimum level) of transparency is not supported by existing government processes and information infrastructure and will require some upgrades in both areas. IT needs to put in place systems that automate the acquisition, process and publication of data such as Call Detail Records and email metadata (SMTP headers). They will also be required to archive emails (if they do not already--no IRS email kerfuffles allowed) and to maintain strict version control of all City documents. Activities must be managed as cohesive units with data and documents collected and published in full at the appropriate milestones. For example, when a grant proposal is submitted that proposal and all documents leading up to it (emails, meeting minutes, status reports, Call records, draft proposals, etc.) are published to the public as a single module.  Similarly, negotiations with current or future vendors would result in publication of all related data and documents the minute the deal is sealed. 

Because we can already hear the folks at City Hall gagging and sputtering something about "we wouldn't even know where to begin" as a part of this particular public service effort we'll get the ball rolling with just a few of our favorite items that should be in the public domain:
  • The ever-popular "Check Register"
  • All Call Detail Records
  • Traffic Citations
  • All radar sign speed records (mobile and fixed signs)
  • Grant proposals and all related documents associated with each individual grant effort
  • All records on unsolicited grants (the Lenco Bearcat leaps to mind)
  • All data and records between the City and subordinate groups including the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Citizen Committees
  • All data and records within the aforementioned subordinate groups
  • All internal status reports (and there should be quite a few)
  • All records of cold-call solicitations (who accepted the call, how did the effort progress)--a perfect example is the negotiations with Tree Top Quest, a poster child for opacity
Some folks (most likely at City Hall) will complain that this is just too much work--too costly. But frankly that is a lie. The fact is that most of these data and documents are created and managed electronically and the cost to implement processes supporting transparency are quite small. But it does beg the question: if transparency is such an important thing that politicians will run on it or stand by it then isn't this small cost acceptable? Or maybe they'd just prefer that we don't know shit.