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University Students launch Local Government Transparency Initiative

by Guest Blogger

It's always refreshing to see students interested in opening up their government. Showcasing a student-run government transparency project in Utah, is guest blogger Randy Dryer. Randy is the Presidential Honors Professor at the University of Utah and one of two faculty members teaching the Honors Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy this academic year. You can read more of his work on utahtransparencyproject.org  or follow him @medialawguy  

On April 11, 2012 ten University of Utah Honors students will launch a state-wide public initiative which, if successful, will forever change how Utah citizens interact with their local governments.  The initiative, called the Utah Local Government Transparency Project, (the “Transparency Project”) is the end result of eight months of study by the students in an Honors College Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy.  The Think Tank explored the often competing paradigms of privacy and transparency and heard from leading local and national experts in the area of open government and privacy  (including Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation)  to gain a comprehensive understanding of the complexities, nuances and challenges of balancing and reconciling these two competing interests.  We learned many things, including the fact that local governments in Utah, with some notable exceptions, lagged behind many of their counterparts around the nation in terms of transparency.  A study of 16 selected Utah local governments conducted as part of the Project demonstrated a wide disparity in government transparency practices and identified many transparency deficiencies.  From this in-depth study the Transparency Project was born.  As explained in greater detail below, the centerpiece of the Project is five transparency “best practices” for local governments to adopt.

The Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy The Think Tank on Transparency & Privacy was the first University of Utah course to be completely transparent and accessible not only to the University community, but to the public at large via a public course web page. Each weekly three hour class session was videotaped and posted on the course web page, as was all student written work product, guest presentations and weekly student oral presentations on selected transparency and privacy topics.  Throughout the course, students made daily posts to their required Twitter accounts and weekly posts to their blogs about the transparency and privacy issues being discussed.  These posts were linked to the course web page as was a public comment feature where persons outside the class could comment on the student’s work product or on any issue being discussed.  This online public content spurred a lot of conversation among students and members of the outside community.  The web page had thousands of page views and hundreds of posted comments.  The course was nicknamed a “Think Tank in a fishbowl.”   Its novel approach to instruction was featured in a story by a local daily newspaper in Salt Lake. At the end of the first semester, the students were divided into a transparency team and a privacy team and each team set about to develop a project that would take what they had learned in the classroom and apply it in a practical way that would  have a life and impact outside the classroom.

The Utah Local Government Transparency Project

In creating a practical transparency project, the students took to heart Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “information is the currency of democracy.” The students designed an initiative which will make local governments truly open and accessible to citizens and lay the foundation for greater citizen engagement with government.  The centerpiece of the Project is a set of five transparency “best practices,” which reflect the best and most current thinking of experts on open government.  These five best practices recognize and leverage recent advances in digital and other new technologies.  The best practices build on the prior work of the Sunlight Foundation (recommended guidelines for transparency in government web sites) and expand the concept of transparency beyond traditional public access to records.

The best practices set forth five broad recommendations and include specific steps an organization should take to implement the five recommendations. The recommendations include:

  1. Establishing a single “open government” web page through which  a citizen may access all information and services of the governmental entity in three or fewer “clicks;”
  2.  Digitizing all information that is collected, generated or maintained by government so that it may be remotely accessed by citizens free of charge;
  3.  Treating emails, text messages, instant messaging and other electronic communications made with government supplied equipment as publicly accessible records regardless of how such records are classified under state law;
  4. Encouraging all elected and non-elected senior administrators  to commit to developing a culture of transparency within the government and its employees that permeates all levels of the governmental entity; and
  5. Making meetings of all policy-making bodies truly open by streaming meetings live on the internet, recording meetings and posting the video and audio on the web page and allowing citizen participation in public meetings via a real time remote connection.

A complete listing of the five best practices may be found on the project web site at Utah transparency Project.

The transparency project has the support and endorsement of several Utah news organizations, NGO’s and foundations, including the Utah Press Association, the Utah League of Women Voters, the Utah Broadcasters Association, the Utah Foundation for Open Government, Utah Common Cause, the Utah Media Coalition and The Sutherland Institute.

The Transparency Project Public Kickoff

On April 11, 2012 the Project will be officially launched at a news conference where a formal request to consider and adopt the best practices will be sent to all 273 local governments in Utah.  The Mayor of Salt Lake City and the Chair of the Salt Lake City Council have personally endorsed the Transparency Project and are committed to adopting the best practices in the state’s capitol city.  The progress of the effort may be followed on the Project’s web page and Facebook page.

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