Empowering Citizens to become better Watchdogs

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Our trip to Utah last month to deliver your letters to the National Governors Association (NGA) — asking our governors to support open government — was a first in many ways. As Laurenellen mentioned in her descriptive recap of the trip, the energetic press conference that culminated in a march to the conference venue may have ended with rejection from the NGA staffers, but not before we saw the power in real citizen engagement.

The day before, as a prelude to the press conference, we had a round-table chat with some of the key open government advocates in a session that had initially been designed to be a “watchdog training” but in fact turned out to be an intimate discussion on the issues surrounding transparency in Utah government. Nearly 20 leaders representing groups like the Utah Foundation for Open Government, Alliance for Better Utah, League of Women Voters, Common Cause and journalists came out to meet us. Over the course of our discussion it became clear that all seemed to agree on the need to increase the level of citizen engagement while involving legislators in partisan issues.

However, when it comes to engagement of lawmakers things get complicated when party lines are involved. We often say at Sunlight that the party out of power is the biggest supporter of transparency, and as Utah is primarily a one-party state, the incentives are low to implement open reforms. But this should not be the case. Parties in the majority should still be transparency supporters, and citizens have the power to remind folks on both sides of line that open government is a virtue. Though most of the legislators in Utah were noted to not be the most technology savvy (thus affecting their concept of electronic government), a suggestion to find a way to get modern (even) partisan leaders to support technology in government was well received. When incorporated with resources such as Facebook and Google Groups that help facilitate personal conversations to build understanding of otherwise complex issues like civic hacking and government data mashups, technology adaptation by both legislators and up-and-coming open government organizations can be made easier. Forming a common interest group provides a platform for discussion. The open secret here is to pull your resources and centralize them — in other words, to organize.

One of the commendable cases of citizen organizing from Utah is the GRAMA campaign. If you look closely you will see that public records — which are an issue of common interest across different civic communities — helped bring people together in Utah. If it fits into the basket of common interest, then it goes into the realm of prioritization. But as the citizen effort to repeal the bill slaying GRAMA succeeded — as the people won — energy and activism around the issue of public records faded, leaving transparency advocates in the lurch.

Challenge: How do communities sustain interest in an issue after the crisis has passed?

The discussion with Utah’s transparency leaders revealed that the blogging community in Utah is fading. Political blogging in the state might have fizzled down because the audience for it has reduced. When bloggers are not concentrating on national issues and are jumping ship to become legislators (like Holly Richardson who is one of the state’s notable female political bloggers but is now an elected House representative), staying involved in local issues can be trying.

Some resources for both individuals and organizations to help build strength (and numbers) in their activist pools include:

  • The CityCamp unconferences model: a great way to get out the local community around open government issues, find out who’s interested/invested in the space, and maybe even inspire a few new bloggers.
  • The 10 Principles for Opening Up Government Information, a guide writte by Sunlight and several other #opengov groups which can be used for conversations about budget portals, public records databases, legislative data, campaign finance, etc.)

Other thoughts, ideas, and tips we shared at the meeting that may be helpful:

  • When tackling specific legislation, getting violations of the law documented, especially on camera can create credibility and traction if you choose to send it to media. Here is an example from Sunlight’s home turf: DC.
  • Sending out a report card/questionnaire to city councils on where they stand on specific open government issues can be a great way to get some attention for these issues. (OpenAustin did just that here).
  • The Utah.gov campaign money in politics is supposed to be open but some values have N/A on where the money came from. How does your state website look like?
  • Entrepreneurial journalism – a fancier term for journalism that involves reinvention of the trade, and for the citizen watchdog, an appropriate way to tell the story of local issues happening bearing in mind what the people — formerly known as the audience– would like to see. The Internet is now making it possible for anyone who can write, to be able to publish, so get going!
  • Identify communities that have bad open government (public records laws) as projects which can bring people together. An example could be looking at the different types of public records responses to the same requests. Charles Davis offers more in his book Art of Access.
  • As a follow up to problems identified in public records acquisition, people can merge a citizen network to educate themselves on how to submit a request. You could even create an informal document with tips on how to file effective public records requests just as The Utah Foundation for Open Government did. (Just make sure you put the resource in an easy to access location). Again, this is where the idea of creating a Google Group or listserv network comes in handy!
  • Another suggested idea could be looking at how procurement codes are currently being regulated (or not) — as is the case in Utah.

Do you have other tips to share? Join the discussion in the comments section.

Big thanks to Tubbytwoshoes for the awesome image.

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