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Transparency Is A Two-Way Street

by Guest Blogger

We welcome today’s guest blogger Matt Rosenberg. Matt is the founder of the non profit Public Eye Northwest and the news knowledge base site Public Data Ferret,a Seattle Times local news partner. You can email him at: matt@publiceyenorthwest.org

 

From Washington D.C. to Washington state, events conspire to remind us that the quest for open government is still a work in progress. One case in point: Out here in the verdant, drizzly climes of the Pacific Northwest, a recent legislative attempt to ratchet up baseline Web disclosure by local governments and the state ran aground.  Washington State Senate Bill 5553 slipped into a legislative coma after a hearing in the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee on March 24th, never even surfacing for committee vote, though it passed the full state senate by a 48-1 vote. Barring exceptional procedural workarounds, it's dead for this session. The bill would have required local governments and state agencies with a current website to post an agenda no less than 72 hours before a regular meeting, including the full text of any ordinance, rule or regulation to be considered. Emergency meeting agendas would be posted online no less than 24 hours prior; and minutes of all meetings within 15 days after approval, to remain online at least a year. The State Government and Tribal Affairs panel's chair, State Rep. Sam Hunt, declined to respond to questions on SB 5553's demise.

When public organizations become private

Even had the measure advanced, there was no requirement in it or existing state law that a local government body have a website, to help boost transparency on meeting agendas and business items. Yet such opacity can bear ugly fruit, as in the case of the French Slough Flood Control District, an under-the-radar public body north of Seattle in Snohomish County. It was recently called out in a state audit for dealing no-bid contracts to two companies, each partially owned by one of its three commissioners. There is not even a current public office for the district listed online, but I managed to track down the manager at his home phone number. He confirmed the district has no website; no plans for one; and no intention to snail mail or e-mail meeting agendas to anyone who so requests. He said (correctly) that our state's open meetings law only required the body to make known the time and place of its regular and other meetings, but that there is wide latitude in the "how" piece. Usually that approach is smart, but not in this instance.

Other local taxing bodies, particularly water, sewer and other flood control districts, and some hospital districts - though supported with public monies - also do not have public Web sites. Their workings remain invisible to all but the most "ïnside" insiders.

New Jersey's State Comptroller Matthew Boxer had a good idea about how to begin addressing this problem. His office took an inventory of New Jersey local governments on whether they have websites and use them for basic transparency. Boxer's February 2011 report found that the 587 local government bodies in New Jersey had combined annual spending and current debt of more than $5 billion, an amount which underscores taxpayer investment in government and the case for robust online transparency; yet more than one-third lacked websites, and those that had them often failed to include basic information on meetings and finances. All states would benefit from similar inventories of local government transparency infrastructure, and then a robust dialog on next steps.

Initiating transparency at the local level

Trust in government is sensed in the aggregate, and what's close to home resonates especially. Expectations are higher. Public bodies and agencies must come halfway across the bridge by better institutionalizing transparency, but responsibility also lies with the community - not just journalists - to demonstrate concretely why transparency matters. Many cities in Central Puget Sound, the fast-growing metropolitan region surrounding Seattle, are already well on their way to doing their part. Unlike some others here, these actors don't need a state law to mandate the basics of online disclosure, they're already hip-deep in it. They're not only posting meeting agendas online, but also embedding in those agendas many individual links to meeting items such as draft legislation, staff and consultant policy reports, regular spending and budget reports, consultant contracts, inter-agency agreements, and more.

These link-rich local government meeting agendas that are regularly posted online can be mined and the highest value news items synopsized by local newspapers, bloggers, and other stakeholders; or by civic information infrastructure projects like our own Public Data Ferret knowledge base, now a Seattle Times news partner.

We found that a consultant's report to the Woodinville City Council on redevelopment options for a seismically vulnerable city-owned historic property, showed the return-on-investment challenge is so daunting it might be better to brave the preservationists and get permission to tear it down.  A Seattle City Council staff report accented the red ink to be borne by the city if as contemplated, it annexed the adjacent unincorporated community of White Center. There would be $4.6 to $16.8 million more in annual expenses than revenues tied to the move, and one-time costs ranging from $8.7 to $54.3 million, all while the city is grappling with major budget problems. The council later backed away from the annexation after the report was highlighted in online media.  An actuarial firm's report to a Seattle City Council committee revealed that the market value of a major city employee pension fund was $1 billion less than its 30-year obligations and that overly generous terms negotiated by the city needed to be corrected to help prevent taxpayer liabilities from growing larger still.

Other tools are part of the accountability arsenal here. Monthly online news releases from the state on disciplinary actions against health care workers are keyed to an online database with related documents, so that the public can access case histories of providers like the medication technician at a West Seattle assisted living facility who while on duty drank a half bottle of whiskey, smoked a substance police lab tests later showed to be rock cocaine, and passed out in a stairwell; or the irritated nurse in another facility who rubbed a soiled diaper into a resident's face. But the database doesn't allow searching by facility, nor do the online disciplinary case history documents usually name the facility involved. Reporters and bloggers can get the latter with a call, but both types of information belong online to start with.

In contrast, the Washington state insurance commissioner's office disciplinary actions database reveals company histories and highlights all recent actions by listing them in reverse date order.

Sometimes in the quest for transparency and accountability, the two Washingtons meet, via reports from the Inspector General of a federal agency. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services was cited in  a recent investigation by the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for over-billing Medicaid $8.4 million in reimbursements, by using incorrect treatment category classifications. It is refunding the money, and has upgraded its information systems to avoid a repeat. A General Services Administration IG report found the agency paid tens of millions more for a major U.S.-Canada border crossing station upgrade in Blaine, Wash. than it would have if proper contract price cap procedures had been followed. GSA's Public Building Service, similarly cited in a series of similar reports involving projects in other locales, says it has developed new procedures to ensure the problem does not re-occur. A U.S. Postal Service IG report recently documented current excess USPS office space in the Seattle region with a market value over 10 years of $26 million, and recommended it be sold or leased, part of a series of findings documenting the same problem across several other of the enterprise's regions.

We know that promises of reform, glimpsed in agency responses to IG audits among other places, don't always materialize, or unfold very slowly. But when the information source is the government itself, the results are harder for officeholders and agencies to ignore - if what's discovered truly sees the light of day. And although the work of the erstwhile U.S. Government Accountability, or in Washington state, the office of our stellar State Auditor Brian Sonntag, are periodically covered in the media, much else that warrants equal attention languishes in the dark corners of the "deep web."

While improving the rules of engagement and technical platforms and tools around government transparency are crucial, so is distilling and distributing high-value public information and data which is already freely valuable. It so happens there's a lot of it. Transparency is only as good as what we - who hire and fire the elected officials who are supposed to represent our interests - manage to do with it. To build the case for more and better government transparency, we should remember the importance of regularly demonstrating the concept across all jurisdictions, and in ways that energize and engage diverse publics.