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Close to Home: Open government is a two-way street

Governments everywhere face mounting pressure to provide convenient access to services and to conduct their business openly. So in many cities, including Santa Rosa, citizens can now go online to pay parking tickets and watch city council meetings.

We all sense that the Internet can do more to help us reach goals envisioned by the Mayor’s Open Government Task Force: better access to city services, more transparent local government and richer civic engagement. Online transactions and streaming video are part of the answer. But how do we build the culture of openness that is the ultimate goal? The Internet itself, rooted in just such a culture, offers useful guidance.

In a presentation available at srcity.org/opengovernment and cited in the task force report, Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium describes best practices for open government and community engagement gathered from cities around the world.

The most successful examples share three things. People choose to work openly, on issues they care about, and they have fun doing it.

Those same three qualities define open source software development, a culture that predates and powers the Web and inspired the modern open government movement.

Open source practitioners aren’t required to do their work in the open. They choose transparency so others can enrich their ideas and help them nip mistakes in the bud.

They choose to be accountable for their work by making every communication, and every document revision, public by default.

They connect to their own communities, and to related projects, using webs of communication that spread news rapidly and effectively and build social capital.

How might cities work this way?

Consider the recent proposal to fence the Church of One Tree.

In July, the Department of Community Development posted notices around the Juilliard Park neighborhood and in The Press Democrat, sent mailers to 400 nearby households and emailed the notice to several organized groups.

Despite those efforts, opposition to the proposal wasn’t evident until the Nov. 18 City Council meeting, when neighbors and interested citizens came out strongly against it and the council rejected the plan.

What then emerged at that meeting was the beginning of a public conversation about underlying issues: park maintenance, downtown police presence, better ways to market assets like the Church of One Tree.

Where has that conversation gone since? It’s hard to say.

Here’s an alternate scenario in which that conversation begins earlier and unfolds more effectively. Notices inviting public comment appear in all the usual places. But they also appear on Facebook and Nextdoor pages, blogs and Twitter feeds operated by the city departments and boards involved in the proposal. Citizens are invited to respond directly to the city, as usual. But they’re also encouraged to post their comments to their own preferred online spaces.

The city doesn’t host that wider conversation. Instead it facilitates by asking people to use a specific “hashtag” - for example, #OneTreeFence - so we can all follow what everyone else says, no matter where it’s said.

That’s how open source projects run, and it’s one of the big reasons why the Internet works as well as it does.

The same principles can apply in the civic realm. Government transparency is necessary but not sufficient. Everyone needs to know why, and how, to be open, accountable and connected.

Spreading that knowledge is an appropriate goal for city government, so I applaud the Open Government Task Force for including such education in its list of recommendations.

Here’s hoping the new director of citizen engagement will model and teach open source practices in ways that all Santa Rosans, inside and outside city government, will want to learn and apply.

Jon Udell, an open-source software developer and technology journalist, is a former executive editor and web developer for BYTE Magazine and former employee of Microsoft. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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