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Sunshine Week focuses on local efforts to make transparency happen

For the past decade Sunshine Week (March 16-25) has challenged Americans to focus on transparency as the bedrock of our democratic government.

With good reason, Minneapolitans care about the health and welfare of their trees. Some wonder if the trees on the boulevard belong to the homeowner, the city or the Park Board. Residents can now learn this and more with a quick click on the city’s open portal, just one of scores of data files readily accessible online – and a taste of what is to come as the city expands the portal’s possibilities for data users.

Hopes and hype were high when the City of Minneapolis launched its open portal to data by and about the city. The expectation, if not the plan, was that inquiring minds would have ready access to massive banks of data essential to their work or personal lives. Though the endorsement of the City Council and staff is a commendable first step, the proverbial – and predictable – devil is in the details. Sunshine Week spurs us to capitalize on that first step – and to reflect on how we fulfill the promise of transparency and accountability as a goal for which the City and residents share responsibility.

For the past decade Sunshine Week (March 16-25) has challenged Americans to focus on transparency as the bedrock of our democratic government. During Sunshine Week we pause to reflect that the fundamental premise goes back to the nation’s forefathers whose vision was that, in a democracy, we the people – as defined in 18th Century terms – rule. To do so, today’s more inclusive “we” need to know what is going on with our government because we are the deciders. Life in the digital age calls for back-to-basics thinking about the idea of open government – the intent, scope, limits, barriers and mechanics of implementing systems that fulfill the promise and meet the real needs of the people governed.

In Minneapolis, the recent prominence of open data on the public agenda can be credited to a great extent to the work of volunteer coders, many working through OpenTwinCities, a local affiliate of CodeforAmerica. Their commitment and persistence raised public awareness to the point at which the staff and City Council launched the much heralded data portal. The measure of success of that portal is simple: the extent to which any user is able to find and use data created or collected by the city.

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As has happened on a mega-scale with other open government launches, there were technical problems at the outset, glitches ably handled by City technology staff who moved quickly to the rescue. And there have been other problems, including some users’ dissatisfaction with missing documentation, the coder’s guide to how the data are configured. Of greater concern is the fact that, as use of the system expands, some City departments have not yet provided essential data; many more have been slow to eliminate barriers that stymie the seeker. By any measure it is clear that today’s portal offers promise, but not yet the full potential of open government.

The first principle of open government is the presumption of openness which means that government information belongs to the people, that limits to access must be assessed and justified; attention to openness must becomes the standard “pattern or practice” of city government. Further, it is essential that information seekers trust that the information by and about their government is not tainted by vested interests. Above all, data must be in a form and format that is both useable and useful; barriers to access – whether language or disability, lack of tools or skill, or fees – must be eliminated.

This requires a cultural change. On the one hand, elected officials and dedicated civil servants throughout city government are challenged to rethink their work. Cultural change demands that supervisors at every level reconsider their priorities and those of the workers they supervise. At the policy level it is the responsibility of elected officials to hold themselves and every staff member accountable to embrace the spirit of openness. Council members and their staff need to recognize and reward transparency as a strength of Minneapolis.

For our part we voters must place high value on a system that is committed to the presumption of openness. As Minneapolis residents we are challenged to rethink our role as information receivers – and providers. It is an unaccustomed challenge for us to play a dynamic role in the reconstructed digital environment that demands us to take personal responsibility to know the rules, to provide good information to the city, and to hold our elected officials accountable for the service we elect them to perform.

Traditionally, our responsibility has been to understand physical aspects of our city – safe streets, reliable utilities, wise investments and intelligent development. The digital age demands more of the City and of us as residents.

Transparency and accountability hold great promise for Minneapolis, a city whose residents have always embraced the challenge to learn, to share ideas, and to make decisions based on the common good. Our heritage and experience validate our high expectations of open government. In this digital age, knowing more about our City gives us an edge — it plays to our strength.

This post was written by Mary Treacy and originally published on Poking Around with Mary.

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