Open meetings laws are an essential element of open government. Ensuring public access to government decision-making processes can help create transparency, allow for accountability, and encourage public participation in the choices being made on the public’s behalf.
For open meetings laws to live up to their full potential, they need to reflect the opportunities provided by recent advances in technology. Governments are already starting to update public records laws to take advantage of these kinds of advances, and open meetings laws are overdue for undergoing similar revisions.
Open meetings generate an abundance of public records, including agendas, minutes, votes, and more. Sharing these records online as open data is becoming increasingly easy and financially feasible. This opportunity is often missed by local governments, but that’s starting to change. States, counties, cities and towns across the country are finding ways to use open data to bolster open meetings, sharing information online about decision-making processes in easily accessible and reusable formats. Open data is helping in ways beyond making information more easily accessible, too. It’s also inviting the public to participate in the decision-making process in new ways — a key component of any open government initiative.
Recommendations for using open data to improve open meetings
Just as the public records process is being updated to take advantage of new technologies, it’s time for an overhaul of how governments approach open meetings. Some of the key principles of open data can be applied to broad improvements of open meetings policies. Here are some of the ways open data can be used to help bolster open meetings:
1. Post the open meetings law online
Open meetings laws are public accountability and access policies, and as such it makes sense to post these laws online where anyone can easily review their rights to access government. Posting these laws online also demonstrates that open meetings are part of the values, goals and mission of the government for keeping the public informed and engaged.
2. Post meeting notices, agendas, minutes, votes and other related documents online
Governments should proactively post meeting notices, agendas, minutes, votes, and other documents generated by open meetings online in a timely manner. All of this information should be machine-readable, making it easily accessible, searchable, and reusable.
Information should also be provided in varied formats where appropriate to help better serve the different kinds of users looking to work with the information. It may make sense to provide votes, for example, as structured data so the information can easily feed into an app that alerts users about the outcomes, while other users may want a simple HTML list of the votes. Posting the information online in various formats creates a variety of ways for people to reuse it.
3. Record and post audio or video of full meetings online
As the price of audio and video recording and online hosting continues to decline, it’s increasingly feasible for governments to record their open meetings and post the recordings online. It’s important that these recordings be complete, not just fragments of meetings, to give an accurate picture of what happened. These recordings can also be a gateway to providing transcripts of meetings, with technology that can generate closed captioning.
4. Share information in a timely manner in a central location
All information from open meetings should be easily findable from a central location online, and the information should be timely and permanent. There should be no restrictions on access to the information, and it should be license-free to ensure anyone can reuse the information freely.
5. Publish information in bulk and consider APIs
All information from open meetings should be downloadable in bulk, which simply means anyone can download the whole set of information at once rather than downloading document by document or piece by piece. Governments could also create an API of the information to encourage its reuse in apps.
6. Take steps to ensure data quality
Taking steps to ensure data quality will help make names, bills, and other important pieces of information findable. Without controls for data quality, the searchability of information could be limited by variations. Several principles of open data can help ensure quality, including using metadata to help verify the authenticity of information by providing important context about its creation and uses. Mandating the use of unique identifiers for bills, council members, and events can help create accurate tracking of these entities, especially in instances where bills might have similar titles or council members might have similar names. Requiring electronic filing of agenda items, votes, and other information generated from open meetings can help detect any inaccuracies with data entry and force data fields to be formatted the same way for quality control. Electronic filing is also useful because it can help make sure all of this information is in electronic format from the beginning, rather than being captured in a format that requires further processing to be useful once it’s posted online.
7. Mandate future review drawing on public input
Mandating future review of open meetings laws will help the law keep up with the new opportunities continually being offered by advances in technology. Open meetings policies and practices shouldn’t have to lag behind the times the way many of them do now. Governments should take suggestions for revisions and improvements from the public, and these comments should be given formal consideration in the revision process.
8. Apply the open meetings law to quasi-governmental agencies
Governments should look at applying open meetings laws to quasi-governmental agencies. The decisions made by these bodies can impact the public as much as decisions made by agencies that are explicitly government-operated, and the information pertaining to those meetings should be subject to the same public scrutiny. Exempting quasi-governmental agencies from open meetings laws can exclude the public from having access to context about decisions that impact their lives.
9. Create an online component for meetings
Open meetings are one of the oldest ways of involving the public in government decision-making. Typically, though, open meetings have meant having the public come to government-designated locations, at specific times, to attend meetings. Now, technology is allowing the public to attend and participate online as well. With webcasting, someone can watch an open meeting from wherever they choose, and with archiving of audio and video they can even catch up on the meeting after it’s over. This also helps accommodate people who have schedules that might not allow them to attend meetings otherwise.
Governments using webcasting or providing audio or video archives of their meetings should take advantage of the expanded opportunity to gather public input on the decision-making process. Those watching online live should be given an opportunity to submit comments for consideration just as those who attend are given an opportunity to speak to specific matters being discussed at the meeting. This will make it easier for the public to be actively involved in expressing a voice about how government operates.
10. Ensure sufficient funding
Governments must ensure the staff responsible for handling open meetings matters have sufficient funding to do all of this appropriately. Who these staff are and what their specific responsibilities are will vary from place to place, but looking at what new or expanded responsibilities could be involved with an upgrade of the open meetings law will ensure that the implementation can be carried out in a way that fulfills the goal of the policy change.
11. Digitize archival materials
Digitizing archival material including agendas, minutes, and other meetings-related documents that are not currently in electronic or searchable format can help provide historical context to decisions made in the past. Digitizing this material could even help with finding outdated policies or laws that should be eliminated or updated. (Finding these kinds of laws is an ongoing ritual in local governments across the country.
As more governments realize the benefits of proactively sharing information online, they should share information about open meetings as a key part of that initiative. It’s a common-sense move to strengthen one of the oldest public access and accountability measures.