“Open data” has been a popular topic in City Hall. By making more public data available for citizens to analyze, it becomes possible for them to better identify ways to improve the effectiveness of public policy and government programs. In doing so, open data offers an important contribution to transparency. However only a small, technologically astute minority of the public has the ability to process much of the raw public data. Though a number of people with the necessary skills are striving to make the raw data usable by the general public, effective transparency requires much more than access to data sets.
People need to be able to oversee more of the day-to-day workings of their government. They need to know more about what it’s doing and more about what it is planning to do. They need to be able to ask questions and get meaningful answers before decisions are made. There are also practices used by unscrupulous moneyed interests to keep the public in the dark while manipulating the decision making process for personal gain, with significant harm to others. The proposed Open Government Amendment addresses these matters.
Transparency is essential, but more is also needed. Having the ability to look is one thing, but knowing when and where to look is another matter. People need to be informed whenever their specific concerns are possibly going to be affected, before it’s too late and a done deal. Transparency needs to be combined with enhanced notification. The proposed Amendment sets various standards and other requirements which make possible an individualized notification process that lets people register their interests and be notified when anything of possible impact is first being discussed.
Notification + transparency are better but still not enough! Being notified about and learning everything that’s going on in the halls of government will be of little benefit unless citizens have a means to develop and provide meaningful input for the decision making and governance in their communities and unless public officials are required to give their full attention to evaluate that input and act upon it. To assure this, at the heart of the Open Government Amendment is a pro-active public participation process based upon a process used successfully during the mid-1990's for regional transportation planning in southwestern Pennsylvania – it’s been revised and expanded in the Amendment for use across the entire municipal level.
The basic model: transparency + notification + proactive public participation. Combining greater access to information with personal notification and direct citizen oversight of the governing process, the proposed Open Government Amendment should be able to serve as a model for other municipalities. It is also potentially adaptable for higher levels of government too.
Finally, there must be an independent means to oversee, administer, and enforce official accountability. By establishing an independent Open Government Office -- with oversight of the various open government requirements; with an ability to investigate citizen complaints and initiate its own inquries; with the potential to refer matters onto the appropriate higher level agencies; and with the means to provide the support required for proactive citizen involvement -- Pittsburgh stands its best chance of achieving a truly open government that meets the needs of the community and not just those of a politically connected elite.