Local watchdogging starts with one good question

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When it comes down to it, beyond the ideal of “transparent governance,” everyone in the open government movement is looking for the same thing: case studies. Examples of the kind of action we need to take, effective communication we need to use, and policies we can suggest and support for open state and local government. For this reason, Sunlight is happy to host this series on best practices in watchdog blogging by Colorado blogger Wendy Norris as part of our Statelight initiative. Norris is a Knight Fellow at Stanford and the founding editor and publisher of Western Citizen, an online new network covering politics and culture in the Rocky Mountain West.

Western Citizen

The 2010 political cycle may be reaching fever pitch, but you can ice those post-election vacation plans. For state and local watchdog bloggers, that’s when our work begins.

I proudly count myself among the small but growing cadre of local watchdogs who are weary of campaign theatrics and are digging into bread and butter issues closer to home. For watchdogs like me, “hijinks season” — that two-month-long netherworld of lame duck sessions that fills the time between the election and the new legislative year when exhausted campaign circuit riders take a breather — is when we need to be at our best in holding government accountable.

For example, a few years ago, a group of Colorado-based, self-described policy nerds catapulted into the world of watchdog blogging by asking ourselves one ridiculously simple question: Why is there virtually no traffic on the toll road that leads to the Denver International Airport when the parallel state highways are choked with congestion?

One of our team members submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request from the public-private entity that manages the toll road. Little did we know that we had hit pay dirt. He received reams of documents that upon closer inspection detailed backroom deals, bare-knuckle politics, a thicket of questionable actions to impede public road access and highly inflated traffic projections to woo state-backed bond financing.

Long before the terms crowdsourcing or distributed reporting became part of the blogging lexicon, we divvied up the documents, fact checked each other and started laying out the narrative of what would initially become a five-part investigative series dubbed Road Scholars. We doggedly followed this story, gradually adding other toll road projects from tips provided from around the nation. All told we covered the story — provoked by one simple question — for three years and through two election cycles.

Our work was eventually picked up by the national and local media. That credibility boost, along with heroic groups of local residents who organized against two new proposed toll roads, led to Colorado state law being strengthened to protect the public: Toll road developers are now stripped of their ability to seize private property by eminent domain under the guise of public partnerships. Residents and local government officials must be involved in future toll road planning, and environmental impacts must be considered before state approval is granted.

Of course, not every tip or idea will lead to a huge story with a happy ending, though luck coupled with the will to ask provocative, unanswered questions about life in your community can set you on some very interesting journeys. So, with that and the lame duck season in mind, let’s crowdsource a tickler file of overlooked sources to inspire great questions for local watchdog efforts:

  • travel vouchers submitted by local, county and state lawmakers
  • implementation process for controversial ballot issues and new laws/ordinances
  • state lobbyist expenditures and bill tracking disclosures
  • new lobbyist registrations by losing/retiring elected officials
  • regional regulatory body agendas and meeting minutes
  • state and local project contracts and procurement reports
  • IRS disclosures by local charities and 501c4 advocacy groups
  • state and local campaign finance complaints and case logs
  • FCC complaints against local television and radio stations

What’s on your post-election blogging agenda? And where could you get the information? Let us know in the comments.

Next: Where do I start? On- and offline tools for local watchdog blogging.

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  • Hi Steve,

    Your frustration with the lack of tools to localize federal public policy impacts is one shared by many folks. In fact, the gaping disconnect between public policy legislation and news coverage is a major driver of my Knight fellowship at Stanford.

    I’m not sure that data would influence the partisan and ideological gridlock among federal office holders. Though that information would seem to be a great opportunity for state/local organizations and government agencies to more effectively deploy limited resources.

    You raise a very important question about decision-making processes and the need to innovate better data visualization tools.

    I’m all ears on ideas that would help the folks back home.

  • Hi Dick,

    As an ex-pat Clevelander, I can personally attest to the need for non-ideological scrutiny of Ohio state and local government.

    Having an non-partisan open government posse is quite helpful to share tips and processes for getting information. I’ll be sure to add some organizing tactics that to my subsequent blog posts here. Thanks much for the suggestion!

    I have found that local and state government staff can be quite helpful when approached honestly and respectfully. If you need to go through official channels to get information, there’s a pretty cool Open Records Act letter generator hosted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

    http://www.rcfp.org/foialetter/index.php

    In your example of Canton city official travel expenses, it always helps to know the law and cite it in any official correspondence.

    Here’s the chapter and verse from the city:

    http://www.cantonohio.gov/mayor/?pg=558

    Thanks for your comment. Stay tuned for more information and keep the great ideas coming!

    Wendy

  • steve har

    I’m a voter in the 06MN Congressional District. Michelle Bachmann (R) is the incumbent and likely to remain so. She has advanced a number TParty policy urgencies that if carried out would seem to do some bad things for the district such as
    -lower state aid to school districts
    -undercut social security recipients
    -undercut jobless benefits for the unemployment
    -undercut medicare recipients

    Yet I find few tools to aggregate public policy areas and issues to my congressional district:
    -BLS labor stats e.g unemployment real trend line numbers? no
    -public vs private jobs?
    -income distribution

    In general the data is disaggregated there is almost no fact based reasoning available at the congressional level.

    Seems like we need some models and data access for Congressional Districts something like the way Hans Rossling does it: http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen.html

  • Dick Ross

    If you are just getting started, as I am, I need to find others in Ohio, my state, or Canton, my city for starters.

    I had sent out Sun Light {Foundation] first organizing email, but nothing has developed, or I missed it.

    Second, just to take one example, the question would be basically the same for your list, where do I find “travel vouchers submitted by local, county and state lawmakers.”

    I would have to think that transparency can be an issue that transcends party and/or ideological lines thought what one wants to make “transparent” certainly would be influenced, if not controlled, by one’s ideology.

    Dick