New technologies are critical to advancing good and open government and encouraging participation, but many communities — especially small and medium sized local governments — have yet to embrace even the most basic tools.
Let’s think about this for a minute. There are 35,879 cities, villages and townships in the United States and more than 96 percent of these local governments have less than 25,000 residents. 49 percent have less than 1,000. To put this in perspective, 49 percent of local governments have fewer residents than some people have Facebook friends.
To put this another way, New York, Chicago and L.A. are anomalies, while cities like Ferndale, Michigan are the norm. As open government advocates, we need to ensure the Ferndales of the world are committed if we’re going to be successful.
So how do we ensure the Ferndales of the world are embracing opportunities for transparency? We create easy-to-use tools and we make sure they’re accessible to small and medium sized local governments — tools like On Board.
What’s On Board?
The 35,879 local governments I mentioned above rely on an estimated 627,883 appointed boards and commissions, as well as 5,023,064 volunteers, for assistance in achieving public goals. Unfortunately, many residents are unaware of these bodies or don’t understand how to engage with them and as a result, local governments receive a limited number of applications.
My colleagues and I at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in metro Detroit, hope to change this with On Board. For local officials, On Board is a secure database they can use to more-easily manage information about boards and commissions. For residents like you and me, it’s a website we can use to find information about these bodies and get involved.
It’s not quite as simple as it sounds, but again, creating something simple and easy-to-use was our goal. We knew we needed to make On Board useful and usable to earn the buy-in of local clerks, mayors and managers and we knew we’d need their buy-in to make On Board successful; that’s why we engaged them early and often throughout its development.
It’s worth noting the project had some local government buy-in from the start. City officials who participate in our Millennial Mayors Congress program wanted to see local governments do more to engage people on boards and commissions. We helped them create a set of information-sharing best practices and envisioned On Board as a tool to support the implementation of those best practices.
We launched a prototype version in February and the cities of Ferndale (yes, it’s an actual place!) and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County are already taking advantage of it, centralizing information like board descriptions, memberships and term expirations. We were thrilled to test On Board with real communities and the feeling is mutual. Ferndale’s Deputy City Clerk is quoted in the Michigan Municipal League’s Magazine as saying: “The City of Ferndale is very excited to be selected to participate in the On Board pilot program. We have found the program very intuitive and easy to use. We hope the project will be expanded as this is a great tool to increase transparency and promote more participation in our city boards and commissions.”
In the coming months, we hope to open the site to more communities, continuing to open this type of data and establishing standards that could be replicated statewide or even nationally. We plan to add features and functionality that will make On Board even more useful and create a sustainable business plan, ensuring On Board is both available and affordable.
By creating a simple, easy-to-use tool and making it accessible, we hope to help an estimated 22,400 metro Detroit residents (and one day, maybe 5,023,064 U.S. residents) meaningfully participate in shaping their own communities.
Emily Thompson is a program manager for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, where she works to engage people in government, ensuring that their voices are heard and their talents are tapped. Since joining the Suburbs Alliance in 2012, Emily has served as the project lead for On Board, helping to develop and prototype the idea, secure funding, raise awareness and bring communities “on board”.
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