“If You Are Paying Attention . . . It Should Be Transparent” . . .NOT!
I have been underwhelmed by comments on my latest Glenwood Post Independent column, and I am not surprised. The city budget can be a dry subject to most and I did little to bring it to life. However, I did receive two comments from Mayor Leo McKinney involving three items I mentioned; transparency, goals and creative thinking. So, while I am no authority, let me explain my view.
The first of Mayor McKinney’s comments, read “the process is transparent for anyone who wishes to pay attention & goals are laid out in the manager’s budget message.”
So What Is Transparency . . . Really?
I will address the transparency issue in this post since it is the largest and ties into the other two. In a subsequent post I will talk about goals and creativity.
In his book, “Transparent Government: What it Means and How You Can Make it Happen”, Donald Gordon defines transparency as:
“The principle by which those affected by administrative decisions and legislation are made aware of the basic facts and figures as well as the mechanisms and processes of their government. This information must be presented in a way that is accessible, comprehensible and enticing, thus motivating citizens to engage in the dialogue necessary to improve the efficiencies of government and mitigate corruption. It is the duty of our elected representatives and of civil servants to act in such ways as to enable this transparency.”
While this is kind of a mouthful it contains key elements that are missing in the budget process – as well as other areas – of the City of Glenwood Springs, and frankly from most governmental entities.
The basic facts and figures are present in the 100-plus pages of the City of Glenwood budget. However, the mechanisms and processes as to how those facts and figures were determined are not.to be found anywhere. Once again, this is NOT an indictment of the city’s finance department who is responsible for preparing the draft budget, but in the policies that govern the process of determining the over-all budget as well as the final recommendations that council receives on each line item of the budget.
Micromanagement? Maybe . . .
Some may assert that is micromanagement. That may be. Sometimes micromanagement is good and even necessary at times. As a taxpayer, our elected representatives and we, the citizens of Glenwood, have the right to know the basis for those decisions. Not to pick on specific departments, but for example, what has been the policy, thought process and justification for 26 full and part time employees and an operating budget of $3.29 million in the Parks and Recreation department compared with 31 full and part time employees and an operating budget of $3.34 million for the Police department? What is the data to support those decisions and on what basis were they made?
Gary Bass, founder and executive director of OMB Watch, which is now the Center for Effective Government and Sean Moulton, Director of Open Government Policy at the Center for Effective Government note that there are three hurdles to transparency; policy, technology and culture.
Policy & Technology
Regarding policy & technology, Bass and Moulton state, “Current laws and policies on public access are inadequate for today’s 24-hour-per-day, seven-days-per-week Internet-enabled world.”
If this is the case, why would it appear the city is not fully committed to bringing their information systems into the 21st Century. Currently the Information System Director is a .5 FTE – which means that he works in IS about 20 hours a week. The city has committed to hiring another Assistant Computer Tech., which brings the number of personnel in this department to 2.5. Compare this to Durango with a staffing level in their Information Systems of 10 for 2015. Granted, the population of Durango is about twice that of Glenwood, but it would seem that if the city was committed to upgrading their systems, the number of personnel and capital expenditures budgeted would be higher. Again, it would be wonderful to have access to the process and reasoning behind these budget decision. I attended the budget work session last Monday and I still don’t know.
In his book, Mr. Gordon maintains that information should be released in a timely and efficient manner and “we need to require government agencies to convert that information in to a useable format that prices a level of comprehensibility that does not require a law degree to decipher.”
The budget process speaks to the culture within City Hall. There are, of course exceptions. Bass and Moulton maintain that those in civil service (i.e. those who are employed in any government agency except the military) do not get rewarded for improving public access and, furthermore, the way governmental agencies operate discourages openness.
To illustrate, I will use an example I am very familiar with – that of information surrounding items coming before the Planning and Zoning Commission. It was not until approximately 2010, after my repeated requests as Chair of that commission, that the agendas and minutes of the P&Z were made available on the city’s website. As it is now, there is a significant delay in posting the minutes – either in draft or accepted form, which I am told is due to workload issues as well as issues with the website. Furthermore, the online availability only goes back one calendar year. Why is that?Additionally, if a citizen would like to review an application before the public hearing, they must go to the Community Development office and request a copy, which is normally provided in paper form. This information should be readily accessible to the public, via the internet.
Please know that I am not asserting that Community Development, or any one department is attempting to discourage citizens from obtaining information. It is simply the way it has always been done. In my opinion, this must change.
Wizard of Oz Wisdom
I understand that with the recession the city has been keeping a tight rein on expenses – and that is as it should be. However, that does not preclude citizens from asking tough questions and being involved in that process. It is no longer ok for someone to infer “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” – as the Wizard told Dorothy and her pals. Citizens need the information, and it needs to be understandable and timely. From this will come authentic citizen engagement and better decisions.
So, I must respectfully disagree with Mayor McKinney’s stance that, “the process is transparent for anyone who wishes to pay attention . . .” I pay attention and the process is not transparent to me. As citizens and taxpayers, it is time for some changes.
What do you think transparency is? Do our local governments have it? What works well and what doesn’t?