More difficult to achieve than concealment in government is effective transparency. It is in the nature of infinite civic documents, agreements and relations to hide in plain sight. Our Public Ethics Commission’s recently published report, “Toward Collaborative Transparency,” outlines the city’s plan to make government transparency more robust and meaningful by making it easier for citizens to make sense of public records.
Volunteer commissioner Aspen Baker along with PEC executive director Whitney Barazoto and two other city staffers made up the subcommittee that authored the report. “People could say that I’m too close to the city to assess and enforce transparency,” said Barazoto, “but it’s really an asset. In order to fully incorporate transparent procedure in this system you have to know how the system works and where it fails to work.”
The report focuses primarily on the improvement of web technology for disclosing public records. The city is already exceptionally progressive regarding public records. Thanks to the Sunshine Ordinance, RFP’s, campaign finance data, meeting agendas and minutes, even email correspondences between public officials, with a few exceptions, are all available for public access. The problem, according to the report, is in the quality of access.
“Even if you know exactly what you’re looking for, what record to request from which department, how to interpret the data or information you receive and how exactly to go about requesting it, the staffer responsible for getting that information to you is making his or her way through a stack of other requests like yours, on top of their regular job,” explained Barazoto. “There’s just not enough capacity to make that access meaningful.”
In order to shift the burden of effort off of the inquiring citizen, the city has launched a campaign to improve the web databases that keep public records. Volunteers from Open Oakland and fellows from Code for America worked with the PEC to consolidate and redesign the website that houses all of the city’s data sets, campaign finance records, budget information etc., with more user-friendly interfaces.
“We’ve worked with Code for America to build a system called RecordTrac which will track records requests as they are made and answered and keeps prior requests up for perusal. So you’ll be able to keep track of the process and products, which is really innovative,” said Barazoto. This kind of metadata will allow trends and comparisons and bigger picture analysis to emerge.
According to Barazoto, the most commonly requested records are for crime reports and arrest records from OPD, for contracts that the city makes with vendors and service providers and for campaign contribution data.
If you explore the data sets online you’ll find that raw data is dauntingly illegible. It takes serious investigation to make heads or tails of the records and the stories they tell about how the city works.
“We are working on making campaign finance data interactive with things like contract records, for example. Because it doesn’t mean much to know that X gave this much money to so and so, unless you know that X is also bidding to be selected for a city contract,” said Barazoto.
The problem is that Barazoto’s staff hardly has enough time to do the bare minimum of scrubbing the data and making terminology consistent for entry. Manipulating the data and visualizing it in a way that is coherent to a layperson is simply beyond the scope of their capacity, she says.
“I’ve been pushing this idea to create an internship program for technologists and programmers to work on making the data more communicative,” she said. “With things as they are, our IT department is too busy keeping our computers and phones working to do exciting things like data visualization.”
A well functioning records database does not just eliminate work for city staff and engage the public in holding the administration accountable, it also facilitates better management internally.
“In trying to raise the bar with public ethics, the challenge is not in making a new ordinance, the challenge is shifting the process and the culture and ‘the way it’s always been done,’” said Barazoto.
Transparency, she argued, needs to be woven into job training and annual reviews processes. People need to be rewarded for proactively disclosing their information. The report outlines steps that Oakland is taking, with the help of a brand new IT director and new Online Engagment Manager, to make a systemic change in the city’s approach to transparency.
Improving the organization of data will enable the city to reward good work and resourcefulness and will make waste and exploitation visible. If people don’t get rewarded for being thorough and not cutting corners, they won’t do those things, argued Barazoto, “It’s about aligning incentives.”
Whether you believe Oakland is run by a league of understaffed city servants or a few wheeling and dealing city bosses, you probably agree that we stand to benefit from strengthening accountability. But that accountability is only as meaningful as we hold it to be.