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Make Public Records Public

by on 07/30/2011

(with Gary Bloom)

In Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the protagonist (known as “K”) is summoned by authorities (a mysterious bureaucracy) to work as a land surveyor, but on his arrival, finds that he has not been hired. K spends most of the novel attempting to communicate with his contact in the bureaucracy and unsuccessfully trying to find his way into the bureaucracy’s office (the Castle). In The Castle, no one is evil; K is even accommodated to a degree by being given a different job. The bureaucratic opacity is just a fact of life, accepted — and defended — by the townspeople.

My take-away from the novel is that the growth of bureaucracy and opacity in government doesn’t need to stem from a big, evil plot, and doesn’t need to present itself in a big (or small) evil manner. It usually just evolves, incrementally, while we are busy working at our jobs and raising our children — and by we I mean government employees as well as citizens.

A large element of bureaucracy stems from our natural tribalism, where we (i.e., humans) identify ourselves as belonging to groups: Red Sox and Yankees’s fans; Northern Californians and Southern Californians; British and Germans; Hindus and Buddhists; or, in our case, city employees and citizens. We don’t need to work at this us/them separation, it just happens.

To keep that natural separation at bay, (and subsequent bureaucracy and opacity) requires not just resistance, but conscious effort. Rather than try to stop opacity, it is better to create practices of transparency. How to do that? Currently, the City has private records — human-resource related, and some legal issues. Most everything else are public records, which are available by request. The problem of records available by request is that you need to know what you’re looking for to get at them — they’re public, but camouflaged. Where’s Waldo is a fun game for little kids, but a lousy design for public records.

Here’s how you do transparency for public records: make the City’s file cabinet a website — not just any website, but a wiki website, which is designed for easy search. What’s a wiki? I bet you use this one often. The software used by Wikipedia.org is free, easy to install, and even has tools to make it easier to use or migrate to, such as a Microsoft Word Doc-to-MediaWiki exporter.

In any case, the above is not meant to be a blueprint, but a guideline. The important element is not just talking about transparency, but creating tools to make it the default. So, how will we know when our City’s information is sufficiently transparent? Easy: when City staff are using the same source to get their information as the citizens of Edmonds.

Why is this important? The focus on transparency has been primarily on issues of the City budget, and for good reason. But transparency goes beyond finances. In a totalitarian government, the government monitors the people. There’s a book about that. In a democracy, citizens monitor the government — and to do so, is good practice for citizenship, even when it’s local government. Why shouldn’t Edmonds be a model to emulate?

For more on transparency in government: Open Government Initiative.

From → Edmonds

2 Comments
  1. Donna Breske permalink

    The current Public records request system at the city of Edmonds seems to be designed to discourage citizen involvement. First of all, you usually need to know what you are looking for and fill out the city’s form to request specific item(s). Secondly, you then wait up to five days to receive said item only to find it refers to yet another item, and you make another public records request as you chase needed information. It is a cumbersome process.

    The wiki information suggestion is a good idea, but will take a lot of time for someone to scan paper documents and upload information. The city of Edmonds does now have a good online system for finding information discussed at council meetings as well as Hearing Examiner proceedings, with links to applicable documents. It is a good system. Maybe the city can expand this system already in place to encompass all public records, not just those discussed at City Council meetings and in front of the Hearing Examiner.

    Also, the city can quickly and easily follow the lead of Snohomish county in the below area.

    1. Snohomish County now takes only one set of paper documents for submittal for permit applications and then scans all documents into their system. They thus save paper at the time of submittal, and they also streamline the review process by putting it in an automated electronic form. Maybe the city of Edmonds staff should take a tour of Snohomish County and look at how the county streamlines their permit submittal system? If the city of Emdonds scans all permit information at the time of submittal, and subsequently all information during the life of the permit review, issuance, and constrution, it seems they can post it to the internet just like they now do with the city council meeting and Hearing Examiner Information. Additionally, just like with Snohomish County, scanning will result in the elimination of all those paper copies now needed at the time of submittal.

    Another example from Snohomish county the city can easily and quickly incorporate is:

    1. Snohomish County makes public records requests much more personal and attainable. A person can simply go to the Planning Division Counter receptionist, request to look at a file, say for a development project. They are then given the entire file, a comfortable place to sit down to look through the file, and mark those pages for which copies are requested. Copies are then made, you pay for them and you go on your way, all this in less than 30 minutes! It seems the city of Edmonds should have the staff available to do this. Edmonds is the only jurisdiction I know of that has not laid off any staff since the recession, despite a significant decrease in permit activity and workload. (Now instead of one inspector which is all that is needed, the city often sends out two to active construction projects. Perhaps a public records disclosure is needed on how often the city uses two inspectors instead of one?) In any event, city staff certainly has more time now than two to three years ago due to a significant decrease in permit applications. If there are to be no layoffs, which would help to balance the city’s budget, then perhaps those extra employee hours can be used to scan in public documents instead of doubling up on building inspectors, which can be viewed as a form of harrasment to those investing money into the city of Edmonds Economic Development.

    Sincerely,

    Donna L. Breske

  2. Donna,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You have referenced the work load of the Development Services Department. Here is a link to the annual land use application report: http://www.ci.edmonds.wa.us/CityDepartments/PlanningDept/Edmonds_120-day_report.pdf

    As you have said, the number of land use applications has decreased significantly since 2002, when there were 188, with only 8 of those being “miscellaneous staff decisions.” In 2010, there were 64 land use applications, with 38 of those being “miscellaneous staff decisions.”

    When I went to find this chart, the first link I clicked on had only the years 2001, 2002, and 2003. A later link led me to this. My point is that this information was not easy to find.

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