How Well is the City Doing on Transparency?

The three concepts of sustainability

A transparent local government is a politically-sustainable local government

It is the cry of good-government & transparency (aka ‘sunshine’) advocates alike: all public documents should be accessible, machine-readable, and searchable. For how would we find the proverbial needle in the local government haystack if we couldn’t locate a document based on a search for content? We at Better Bike have bent the collective ear in Beverly Hills City Hall for three years (without much success) to get the city to commit to generating documents that meet that standard, at least, but to no avail. How’s our city doing on other aspects of that ‘sunshine’ thing then?

Could be better. Every few days we come across non-searchable, poorly-scanned documents or public documents missing entirely from the website. The city’s finalized Sustainable City Plan, for example, is still not posted. Of course any city website has the occasional broken link or stale content, and we find those too. But even we had to gasp as we brought to the city’s attention content posted to the planning department’s main page that went stale in 2008 (this despite the move to a new web platform only a year ago).

These are not isolated examples. At the Mayor’s Sunshine Task Force each month, we’ve seen that meetings tend to start with a members’ roster of transparency-related problems (recently biased staff reports, say, or the fact that some City Council members don’t want to post their official email addresses).

This past meeting in May we weren’t even able to get a word in edgewise with our own observations about¬†transparency-hobbling problems so let us take the liberty of listing a few here:

  • The city continues to generate image-based PDFs that are non-searchable because either there is no OCR text layer or the text layer is fragmented by improper line breaks (making search and copy/paste impossible);
  • Supplemental materials like staff reports and policy documents are not linked to many of our commission agendas, which means that the public comments at the beginning of the meeting without having reviewed the issue-relevant document;
  • Key policy documents are not always posted and go missing not only from the website but from our public library too: it holds few and only a single one, the 2010 General Plan, turns up in the online catalog;
  • Those city agendas are still not linked from the city’s online calendar entries, which means that reviewing the posted agenda requires a trip to the commission’s ¬†website;
  • Speaking of extra clicks, our outmoded online contact tool Ask Bev puts an inconvenient barrier between the stakeholders and officials by requiring the user to click-through several screens simply to leave a comment or question; and,
  • That same Ask Bev system requires the user to first click-through FAQs that are sometimes outdated (or simply empty of any content) prior to leaving a comment.

Now we don’t want to appear to be whining. It’s just that we’ve been apprizing City Hall of these and many other such issues over the past three years. Sometimes the problem is solved once it’s highlighted; other times it goes unaddressed. What’s always missing is the proactive effort to reflect upon the city’s stated principles that support increased public engagement in city affairs.

In other words, City Hall gives lip service to public participation but fails to do the harder work necessary to get stakeholders to take an interest. Case in point: the Sunshine Task Force was created by the Mayor to “put residents first” (in his phrase) by making City Hall more accessible and responsive, but ironically the city’s own Sunshine Task Force webpage is bare enough to mock the whole premise. (So we set up our own.)

Shouldn’t there be a guiding policy document that makes explicit the city’s commitment to community participation? Yes, and indeed there is such a section folded into our Sustainable City Plan (the one that’s never been posted in its final version). Under the rubric of ‘Community Participation & Civic Duty,’ the plan states the policy goal this way: “Nurture an engaged, educated and actively participating community.”

Civic Participation BrieferThe steps that the city would take to support the engaged community are outlined in a handy briefer (right). But there’s not much there there. Only two bullet points make explicit the city’s committment to act: Ensure access to City Hall and empower all community members to participate in city-sponsored events. We read that to mean that the city is working the social media to promote city events. And that’s great for the activities calendar.

What about the hard work necessary to encourage civic participation? To date, our efforts at e-Government appear focused on achieving the transactional benefits: we’ve moved many planning and permitting functions onto the web but have let lag the effort to improve the website in order to make e-government more inviting to all stakeholders. (See points #5 and #6 above.)

City of Los Angeles has recently updated their website, for example, and it’s won recognition for inviting design. Santa Monica, too, has bent over backwards to invite community input into the planning process. That city is just kicking-off a series of meetings for their Downtown center plan which comes after years of working on their Land Use and Circulation element – a process so involved (and involving) some felt it might never wrap-up!

Pedestrian area mapBut how many of us participated in the Beverly Hills general plan update in 2010? Or participated in the design process for the business triangle? Who among us knows that we actually have a designated pedestrian area (right)? You could be excused because you can’t find it in a plan posted on the city’s website. (See point #3.)

Unfortunately, our efforts at bringing stakeholders into the workings of Beverly Hills city government has been too focused. We have an annual program called Team Beverly Hills that gives a group of appointed and lottery-chosen stakeholders a peek behind the curtain, but what about the rest of us? (At least we could post the City Council operations handbook.) We also get the word out via Beverly Hills This Week (a brief TV news magazine) and In Focus (an anemic glossy monthly newsletter). But we have our work cut out for us if we’re to offer stakeholders good reason to become involved.

City of Walnut's Community Connected reportBeverly Hills stakeholders receive nothing like the City of Walnut Creek’s ‘budget story’ (right). This 20-page booklet titled A Community Connected is a veritable dashboard of city functions and performance. Our own city staffers distributed it at the May Sunshine Task Force meeting as an example of transparency. And we agree: this would be an excellent tool to make the city’s business accessible.

Our city issues a mid-year statement of accomplishments but it reads a bit like a padded resume. (Download the 12-page 7 megabyte document. ) Just two years ago our local paper, The Courier, had to sue to get city salary information. That’s not transparency.

Surely you have ideas about how to make City Hall more accessible and transparent. Join us at the next Sunshine Task Force meeting on June 25th. It’s public so feel free. According to councilmember Julian Gold, however, it’s not really a legitimate body, so don’t expect refreshments. The era of leisurely taxpayer-funded three-course meals is behind us now that the Westside COG is virtually out of business. Those were the days! Now it’s time to get to work.