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Pushing Governments to Do More on Transparency

The government services firm Granicus has published a white paper outlining standards for government transparency in the new online world. While their standards are not the be all, end all, they do provide a useful benchmark on which to judge what some of the more innovative local governments are doing nation-wide.

  • Real Time. Freedom of information laws have required that government meetings be open to the public for decades now. But in the internet age governments can go much further. Rather than simply holding an open meeting and making the minutes available for those who can’t make it at the specified time, governments can stream all of their public meetings, live. Cities like Berkeley, California, are already doing this, not only for the City Council, but also for smaller bodies like the zoning authority. Here in Virginia, the city of Alexandria has also been a leader in live-streaming, webcasting meetings for all of their public bodies.
  • On Demand. As big a step forward as real-time streaming is, it isn’t enough. After a meeting has happened citizens should be able to lookup any board meeting that has been recorded whenever they want. Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, has an On Demand program that allows citizens to access recording of meetings on YouTube or download podcasts from iTunes, or get them directly from the county’s cable TV channel. In Virginia, Fairfax County has also been on top of On Demand access to public meetings. For every meeting of the board of supervisors they promptly put up a page that summarizes the meeting, with links to videos of the full session, presentations to the public, presentations by board meetings and public hearings held by the board on that date.
  • Integrated Public Records. Fairfax excels in another area as well. It seamlessly integrates public records from the meeting into one single page. In addition to the video of the meeting, the county provides residents easy access to the official summary of the meeting, the agenda and materials handed out as well as news releases relating to the meeting. Sacramento, California is another jurisdiction doing the same thing. However, whereas Fairfax requires users to find the summary page for the meeting they want, Sacramento has an easy to find page with agendas, summaries and video for all of their recent meetings.
  • ADA Compliance and Closed Captioning. Unfortunately, in their rush to design attractive, functional websites, far too many people ignore those in the community with disabilities. Every locality in the country is required to adhere to the standards for websites laid out in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some of this is simple, such as including adjustable font size, text only versions of websites and screen reader compatibility. But there is room for improvement. If governments are providing video, they need to provide closed captioning or some other form of simultaneous transcription, to allow disabled citizens equal access.
  • Searchable. Just about every county government website has a search function at this point. The question is how far they go and how easy is it for citizens to find what they are looking for. Some places, like Fresno, California, place search front and center on their website. Also important is making sure everything is indexed in the search function. Too many localities leave out .pdf documents and Microsoft Word files.
  • Downloading and / or Syndication. Public meetings are public. Governments can’t censor people who attend them from writing about them, recording them or more generally doing whatever they want with the information provided there. The same should be true for online videos of public meetings. Citizens need to be able to download video files to use as they see fit. Governments should also make it easier to follow the updates of public documents by providing RSS syndication of online videos and other public documents. Places like Alexandria are already doing this, allowing citizens to subscribe to live feeds of video updates and audio podcasts. Other localities provide RSS feeds of press releases and other public documents, allowing citizens to stay up to date with little effort.
  • Sharing. Social networking is not a fad. Governments need to realize that new platforms like Facebook and Twitter are here to stay and adapt to them. Localities like Montgomery County, with its On Demand center, engage citizens where they already are, Facebook and Twitter, instead of forcing them to come to one central place.
  • Formats and Data Standards. For text documents .pdf files have become the accepted standard, but there are no similarly accepted standards for web video yet. Some governments use Windows Media Player to stream content, other use RealPlayer and yet others use Flash formats. Until there are widely accepted formats for streaming video, local governments should strive to provide content in the widest range of possible formats, to allow access to the greatest number of citizens.
  • Free. There is next to no cost associated with putting public documents online for the public access. Governments should resist the urge to hide some data behind pay-walls or to use third-party vendors who charge users fees to access data.

Many governments around the country are going above and beyond the minimum baseline that citizens can expect from them. They are delivering live streaming of public meetings, on demand libraries of past meetings and integrating public records into their presentations. They are syndicating council documents and making it easy to share government websites on social networks. The challenge now, is to get more jurisdictions into this category.

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