Civic software-as-a-service can make what seems like a new burden for cities an opportunity to collaborate
Yesterday, citizens in the state of California amended their constitution to make it more open and transparent:
Voters approved Tuesday a measure to give greater protection to California’s open meeting and public records laws by putting them in the state Constitution.
As described by the Sacramento Bee, Propositional 42 was constitutional amendment enacted to ensure the protection of already existing laws around government transparency. The risk was delivery. The state had frozen its budgetary outlays to help local governments to deliver on those laws, and in so doing hollowing them out. Prop 42 shifts the responsibility to pay for compliance to the local governments themselves. It passed handily (61.5%) yesterday with the only real debate coming around the budgetary impact: “There was no formal opposition to the measure, although the League of California Cities said it was ‘concerned’ that shifting the costs of complying with public-records laws will hurt agencies that are already struggling to make their budgets.”
The budgetary question is a good one, and for California cities a particularly hard one. Fortunately, when it comes to open government, transparency, and public records, there are dozens of applications cities can turn to to deliver on Prop 42. For making laws available online, there’s the OpenGovernment Foundation’s AmericaDecoded project; for managing public records requests, Code for America / PostCode’s RecordTrac; for meeting notes and transcripts, there’s SayIt from the UK’s MySociety, or Granicus’s meeting solution; for budgets, you could try out OpenGov.com; and for all other kinds of local data, there’s a myriad of solutions ranging from the popular commercial players like Socrata or Accela, to the open SaaS options including CKAN or the today launched NuData. And of course, there’s just the strategy of putting it all on GitHub for free. Point is that while cities may approach Prop 42 as a new burden, there’s a host of reusable tools out there to make lower it. And more being made everyday (which you could help make even better).
The use of these tools is in effect now written into the state’s constitution. What we have to continue to do as people building them and others like it, is work to constantly increase the surface area of people who know about them, and make it easier and easier to deploy them.
If we can do that, we can work towards a better, collaborative model for local service delivery. Instead of each city having to develop its own solution in isolation, they can in effect collaborate through these technologies. And fortunately without the hassles of conferences, mailing lists, etc. What do I mean by that? By using a common tool that they can deploy off the shelf, they not only dramatically reduce costs, but also begin to create common infrastructure city-to-city, and infrastructure that gets better every day because the companies or organizations building them are learning from all city deployments. That’s cities working better together — thanks to the growing civic technology marketplace.
Long story short: even policy with the noblest of intentions will be assessed on how its delivered. And in the 21st century that delivery will be increasingly digital. Fortunately, digital technology can scale across city lines, and that can make delivering world-class digital services less of a challenge and more of an opportunity.
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