Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On the information superhighway, City of Salem is badly lost

This icon, known as the "feed icon" ...Image via WikipediaAt the neighborhood meeting tonight, a neighbor --- a woman who has been a stalwart volunteer for Salem for decades --- complained that the city had revised the historic district review process to streamline approvals for "non-significant projects" to such a point that very significant projects were being sent through the process intended for the kinds of things where you can't even tell which of two pictures is the "before" and which is the "after."

The troubling issue is that this woman, who has worked really hard on behalf of the historic districts and for Salem's valuable but threatened identity as a city that has preserved important pieces of its past, was learning of these fast-track applications only after it was too late to raise a red flag about them, to warn the bureaucrat reviewing the application that the applicant was maybe trying to get a major change through in the guise of a non-significant application.

The underlying issue is how well Salem's public involvement and information machinery works.
And that is easy to summarize:

It sucks.


After much prodding, Salem finally put out a lame RSS (real simple syndication) feed that is so rarely updated that it might as well not exist. Not only is it only rarely updated, but it appears to be almost entirely unknown by city staff and certainly by city council. Anyone relying on the City's RSS feed to stay up on what's going on with Salem would be lost without a map.

Nor does Salem provide a nice menu of listservs for citizens who want to track certain issues, or committees, or property development or historic district changes, nor for those who want to keep track of things like chicken-keeping ordinances and rules, or even planning committee functioning.

Despite the wealth of absolutely free or very low-cost information sharing tools, Salem is about as open to its residents as The Forbidden Temple was to the average person in China in 1600.

There are two key tools for helping tackle this sorry state of affairs: RSS and listservs. Not fancy. But cheap and effective.

1) If you don't know what an RSS reader is, you should -- it's a tool that can make it possible for you to follow a number of websites efficiently and effectively. Even more important, it could make true transparency in government easy and, most important, very, very cheap.

In a nutshell, RSS is a tool that lets you keep an eye on websites at all times so that, if something new is posted on a site you are following (that you have "subscribed" to), you see the update in your reader. It's the difference between having to drive all over town to visit different newsstands to find the things you're interested in and having a butler offer you a fresh copy of the things you might be interested in the second they become available.

So instead of having to bookmark and laboriously visit those sites to see what is new (or, in Salem's case, to see how long it has been since the darn thing was updated, and how long the incorrect information will hang around) you just open your reader and browse your subscriptions, like browsing a table of contents in a magazine. You can aggregate various subscriptions into folders so that sites that all relate to the same general topics show up together. The screenshot above is the LOVESalem HQ Salem feed on my RSS reader -- it lets me know at a glance when there is a new post I might be interested in concerning Salem, so I can open that headline, click on the link, and be taken to the target website immediately, without having to even know where the site is these days.

Salem is not using this valuable tool to notify even the most interested people of things, such as the Boards and Commissions vacancies (Did you know that there is a planning commission spot open right now?)

2) Likewise, just as Salem has failed to use the vast power of the web to make it easy for people to stay up to date on the goings-on in city government, they have also failed to make it easy for people to use email to stay informed.

As a rule, every single distinct office at the lowest level in Salem city government (and every one above them) should offer one or more email subscription options so that residents who want to stay on top of a subject automatically get all the emails that the office sends out intended for the public. Instead of "broadcasting" using citywide newsletters, we should be using the great power of the net to let people selectively sign up for narrowcasts that are perfectly suited to their own particular interests.

For example, LOVESalem HQ is in the Northeast Neighborhood (NEN). When we started our little urban homestead here, I should have been able to go to the City of Salem website and see a lengthy menu of listserv options that I could have signed up for, as a way to start learning what's going on and staying informed efficiently. I should have had the choice of subscription to get an email on NEN, Salem water and sewer, planning commission meetings and agendas, city council meetings and agendas, zoning codes, ordinance changes, Parks and Rec, bicycling, solid waste management, etc. etc. etc. (I know, I'm weird -- but the point is that what interests me isn't what interests you, and sometimes our interests change over time.)

Every time a land use application or zoning change goes into the city for an area that I'm interested in, boom, it should show up in my email because I subscribed to the listserv for that neighborhood. Every time the city thinks about buying something that I sell, I should get an email, because I subscribed to the listserv for that product group with the city procurement department. And so on. It's not about doing more work for city staff, it's about getting the maximum of transparency and public information benefit from the work the city staff is already doing.


Salem spends a lot of money on public information right now . . . while, basically, failing to communicate very effectively. So it needs to change. The city needs to completely overhaul its whole public information and involvement strategy by starting with some basic first principles:

1) Everything is to be released to the public -- except for those few things that are exempt from the Public Records Act disclosure requirements.

That is, instead of operating the way it does today (like the Kremlin, only disclosing information when requested and when it feels like it), the basic rule would be that ALL city information is disseminated to the public as quickly as possible, except what needs to be protected.

What this means is that all staff reports, audits, research, etc. would all automatically be sent to the public information division, whose job would be to figure out how many ways to usefully provide that information to anyone who might want it for whatever reason, whether to run their business or for idle curiosity.

2) Duplicate channels when communicating with the public -- a bunch of listservs could be thought of as redundant to the city website. After all, why send out a bunch of emails when you can just post things on the website? Answer: Because the city needs to stop thinking of giving information as a chore or a burden and start thinking of it as the essence of democracy --- which means giving people as many options for getting the information as make sense from a cost and ease of use perspective. A city that really wanted to communicate with its residents would always be sure to overcommunicate, using the web, listservs, regular mail, CCTV and UTube, and, yes, posters on kiosks in neighborhood and city centers. Yes, the law requires posted signs when there is a land-use application -- but there should also be a PHOTO of the sign posted on the city website AND an automatic email that goes to anyone who has signed up to get the land-use application notices for that area.

3) Management must let go of the illusion of control -- The job of a manager in an enlightened information sharing regime is to make sure that only those things that should not be disclosed are not disclosed. That means private personnel files, information about litigation, etc.

Other than that, it should be a regular part of all departments and sections to share information with the public, without the filtering and massaging of management trying to CYA. Staff should NOT have to send public information items up a chain of command for approval, which causes delay and creates information filters.

Instead, staff should be trained in a very simple rule: If the public paid for it or their government used it or looked at it, it's a public record, and should be provided to the public as quickly as possible, in whatever formats (plural) make the most sense.

That is, all information that is created or used by any part of city government should be presumptively made available to the public immediately, as part of the ongoing transparency. Only those few things that would not be released in response to a public records request (because of a valid exception) should be exempt from this proactive, unprompted disclosure.

Bottom line: there should never be a need for a public records request, because the public should never have to ask a city staffer for information that they are entitled to have. If we're entitled to it and the city has it, there shouldn't be a delay of more than a day or so to get it distributed (posted on the web, sent to the various listservs, etc.). All releasable records that the city holds should be organized and made available to anyone with a web browser automatically, as soon as possible.

This will require that city council direct staff to reverse the assumption of today, which is that it's OK if staff operates behind a curtain of secrecy, only emitting whatever information they are forced to (meanwhile wasting money gathering and reviewing record requests).

Thus, city managers need to train staff on how to be as transparent as possible, show them how to recognize what things should NOT be shared, and reward them for sharing everything else (and organizing it in a way that helps residents find it).
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