How Naperville took an inclusive, participatory approach to opening city data

Sunlight's Alyssa Doom and Naperville's Russell Rogers.
Sunlight’s Alyssa Doom and Naperville’s Russell Rogers.

Over the years, Sunlight has strongly advocated for the incorporation of stakeholder feedback into open data policy development. In fact, several of our Open Data Policy Guidelines highlight why building an open data program that speaks to the goals of the public and internal data users is critical to sustaining any open data initiative. Working with one of our latest What Works Cities, Naperville, Ill., has been truly exciting as the city’s open data leaders continue to take a unique participatory approach to opening municipal data.

Admittedly, I’m already eyeing the lessons Naperville has taught us that we’ll be able to share across the peer network of What Works Cities (WWC).

Russell Rogers, the city’s IT project manager and open data champion has laid out a plan to incorporate stakeholder perspectives at every stage of the process.

Internal stakeholder engagement

From the get-go, Rogers and his co-WWC project lead Marcie Schatz, deputy city manager, began incorporating the perspectives of their colleagues to maximize their engagement with WWC. Instead of filling out the program application on their own, they sought feedback from all of the city’s department directors and personnel who work closely with the city’s data. The feedback provided insight into the ways data was being used across all departments, which helped paint a more accurate picture for their application that has ultimately served to maximize the benefits they’ve received through their involvement in WWC.

The city’s open data champions formed an open data governance team, consisting of staff from across city departments — finance, IT, police and the City Manager’s Office, as well as several external stakeholders from the community, including an elected official. Through a series of meetings held over the past several weeks, this group reviewed Sunlight’s guidelines and formed groups to draft separate sections of the policy.

This approach was unique in that the city’s open data champions weren’t just asking for feedback on a draft policy. Engaging staff responsible for the tasks laid out remains critical to developing buy-in from all departments. It’s more than just a top-down mandate that civil servants feel they’ve been assigned. Instead, staff have become more educated on both the internal and external benefits of open data and have been actively engaged in brainstorming ways that they can help their departments achieve successes and innovations that will improve service delivery to residents. “Open data and transparency build community trust and engage our residents on a whole new level,” City Manager Doug Krieger said. “We look forward to finding out what solutions can be discovered through the use of our data.”

“A lot of people think of open data in terms of what can be done by outward users, but I’m personally very excited about how I can use it to answer the public’s questions and inform internal decision-making.”

Rogers was impressed by how engaged governance committee members were in the process. Many took time out of their day-to-day work to conduct research for the Naperville’s open data program. And now the city is taking their approach to participatory policymaking a step further by inviting the public to provide feedback on their draft policy.

Naperville uses ‘Madison’ to engage the public

Rogers is excited about the experimental approach the city is taking by using the OpenGov Foundation’s Madison as a tool to seek public feedback on the policy. Madison provides an easy interface for the public to incorporate comments and interact with legislation and laws that they may not otherwise have access to. This approach allows for the city to broaden their outreach and learn from outside experts. “We’re broadcasting to a much wider network than we would otherwise,” said Rogers.

“When government reflects the views of the people, democracy works,” said Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, which leads the open source development of Madison. He continued:

That’s what Madison and the What Works Cities program are all about. We are excited to deepen our collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation here, growing from Open Data Policies Decoded to helping communities like Naperville craft smarter open data policies. Imagine if all 40 What Works Cities followed Naperville’s example, governing better, together with its residents and Madison? That’s the world we’re all striving to create.

“If someone spots a problem with the policy, I see it as an opportunity to improve,” said Rogers. “Using this platform, we’ll be able to close that feedback loop and incorporate constructive feedback prior to policy adoption and implementation.”

Rogers decided to go with Madison as a platform because he wanted to keep it simple. “The tool is easy to use, has great aesthetics and it’s easy for us to keep track of comments on the back end.” The city recently revamped its website, and hopes to continue focusing on user experience in future initiatives, such as the open data program.  

And while those who view the website may not have much feedback for the policy itself, he believes it will be a great way to raise awareness for the city’s open data in general. The city is committed to continued engagement with the public throughout this process.

Next steps

Early on in Sunlight’s WWC engagement with the city, they made it clear they wanted this policy to embody a shared vision for open data in Naperville. “By incorporating stakeholders at every level, we can both build buy-in and trust. Our city has a unique ‘volunteer spirit’ and I’m confident this will contribute to sustaining an open data program that residents will be excited to be a part of,” said Rogers.

He emphasized that he feels the city’s open data program has the potential to be transformational. At the same time, he recognizes that by nature, the project isn’t as clear-cut as many other city initiatives. “People are going to ask questions and we may not have the answers right away. We plan to keep an agile mindset and make adjustments as we see fit based on the feedback we receive.”

Naperville, the OpenGov Foundation and Sunlight encourage you to view and comment on the city’s draft open data policy, which you can view here. The policy will be available for public comment until Oct. 28. Following this deadline, the governance committee plans to present the policy to the Naperville City Council.