In late June,  Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission (PEC) took a leadership role in building better government in Oakland by holding an impressive forum with some great speakers and kicking off a year-long effort to make city government more transparent and accessible for all citizens.  The working definition of transparency for this project includes open and accessible data, which promotes accountability of elected officials and government employees.

Whitney Barazoto, the Executive Director of the PED, told Oakland Local, “Open government is at the core of the PEC’s goal of ensuring openness, honesty, and integrity in City government.  Our Transparency Project taps the momentum from City staff and community members working together around projects that open up our government and focuses on community needs and participation.”

Barazoto explained that this work included Oakland’s open data platform and the Code for America fellowship program that is creating on-line tools for public records requests.

On the city website, the PEC pages describe the on-going Transparency Project this way:

“The Public Ethics Commission’s Transparency Project aims to assess Oakland City government’s current openness and transparency, facilitate improvements, and recommend actions to further the Commission’s goals of ensuring fairness, openness, honesty, and integrity in City government. The goal of the Transparency Project is to outline a vision for transparency and open government in Oakland.”

More public meetings will be held by the PEC to garner public input and plan actions to achieve this goal, including the upcoming meeting  in late July.  Between now and the July meeting, the PEC is conducting  a survey online to find out how open the City seems to Oaklanders.  You can participate by texting a letter grade, A to F,  to 510-470-7852.  As of early July, the City  is doing a little better than “C” with only about 40 votes submitted.

At the June meeting, a range of speakers addressed how to make local government more like the World Wide Web and better meet the expectations of Millennials, Digital Natives, and regular Oaklanders.

The line up of speakers included:

Keynote Speaker: Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media on Government as a Platform

Transparency 101Laurenellen McCann, Sunlight Foundation

The Problem with Transparency in California – Caroline Vance Bruister, California Forward

Innovations and EngagementAlissa Black, New America Foundation

Public Participation – Greg Greenway, Davenport Institute

Oakland InnovationsSteve Spiker, Nicole Neditch,from Open Oakland.

For those who missed the event, Tim O’Reilly’s slide deck has been published HERE.

The open meeting also tested innovations in access via two new technologies for citizen input – Vuact and Textizen. Vuact works with streaming video and allows viewers to react to comment on sections of the video. Texizen, which was a Code for America incubator project in 2012, allows participation via text-message surveys.

One motivation for encouraging broad citizen participation and on-line access to public meetings is the once-a-decade redistricting process. Mandated by the City Charter, every 10 years “the City of Oakland must review and revise City Council District boundaries to equalize each district’s population according to U.S. Census data. ” The Redistricting process will include Town Hall Meetings in July and September as well as online engagement opportunities for those unable to attend these meetings.

Steve Spiker, co-founder of Open Oakland, commented on the hearing and mixed  results with Textizen:

“About involvement- given the nature of Oakland meetings, it was great to have online questions responded to live. Not sure about the traffic via Textizen or Vuact. I did see some comments on the Vuact site, though. Not sure it was a wonderful solution, but I need to see the data first. In-room involvement was great for a hearing.”

Barazoto also noted problems with Textizen.  “Textizen was not as successful as we had hoped.  We received feedback that people were concerned about remaining anonymous… many thought their phone numbers/identities would be trackable and so therefore did not participate.”

Aspen Baker, the Chair of the PEC’s Subcommittee on Access to Public Records, set the goal of the meeting as initiating “…an authentic, solutions-oriented dialogue around transparency in Oakland – what we’re doing right, what needs work, and what innovations we might want for the City.”  Baker added, “The Commission initiated the Transparency Project this year to assess Oakland City government transparency, hear about innovations happening elsewhere, and outline a vision for how Oakland should move forward.”

Tim O’Reilly, the keynote speaker,  said that open government is like a web development platform and the same qualities need to be applied.  He used the development of mobile phones as an example. ” With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, we saw a revolution in ease-of-use. Multi-touch screens, beautiful interfaces. And yes, there’s a lesson here that we want to build interfaces to government that are simple, beautiful, and easy to use. ”

DSC00719Laurenellen McCann, the policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, who presented after Tim O’Reilly, appreciated the energy and commitment of the PEC and its community partners like Open Oakland.  She tweeted during the meeting: “I want to steal the energy in this room and bring it to #DC‘s city council.”

The hearing and presentations were recorded on KTOP and will be rebroadcast on the city channel.

Here is the  link to Vuact’s on-line version of the KTOP recording , which shows Tweets on the viewing timeline. The PEC event starts 11 minutes and 15 seconds in and runs to 3 hours and 50 minutes.

A full size slideshow, with images from the presentations,  is HERE: