Building A 21st Century Democracy

May 11, 2012

The San Francisco Assessor-Recorder's office is forging a partnership with DataSF, an open government portal that organizes data from various San Francisco government departments in a way that is easily accessible and interactive for public viewing and use.By: Phil Ting

In today’s media landscape of 140 character statements and 30-second sound bites, it’s easy to score points with buzzwords like open government and transparency. From President Barack Obama to leaders closer to home, elected officials are exploring the power and potential for Open Source Government.

These are admittedly admirable aims, but when you bore a little further we have to make sure that e-government empowers everyone, not just government leaders and agencies.

Putting Your Data Where Your Mouth Is

That’s why my office is forging a partnership with DataSF, an open government portal that organizes data from various San Francisco government departments in a way that is easily accessible and interactive for public viewing and use.

Homeowners and small business owners will now have convenient access to the tax assessment on both the structure and land, the use type of the property, the year the tax assessment was conducted, and any tax exemptions on the property. Now, instead of coming into City Hall, San Franciscans can obtain this information from home, which will help free up resources in my office and ultimately streamline operations here.

It’s also the first time the Assessor’s office has collaborated with an outside agency to publish the entire San Francisco property roll.

San Franciscans, citizen journalists, whistleblowers as well as policy makers now have more data to inform their decisions and spur new policy ideas. Elected representatives and other leaders need to accelerate the availability of this sort of information, not gingerly wait for the tools to come to them.

After all, better data sparks better policies. That’s what we found when we launched our audit of foreclosures in San Francisco, which created the data set we needed to drive forward reforms like the Homeowners Bill of Rights.

In addition, I’m happy to have worked with California Common Sense, a Stanford-based non-profit that visually maps government spending versus performance based metrics, among other data. Last year, we launched a San Francisco-specific portal, making SF the first municipality in the state to participate in the project. While I don’t always agree with the conclusions coming from CACS – I think we all agree that smart government decisions should be based on data.

Laying The Foundation

From working, to shopping, to watching movies, to keeping in touch with our grandparents and grandchildren — it’s undeniable that more and more of our lives are shifting online and onto mobile technology.

As we put in place the building blocks of a 21st century economy and way of life, it’s high time that we lay the foundation for a 21st century democracy.

Open government is not the only answer to the problems facing our governing bodies, but it’s an important first step. Open government helps engage people in the political process by arming them with information. An engaged and knowledgeable citizenry helps keep elected officials accountable to everyday people and not special interests.

Too many people don’t vote and many more are apathetic or resigned to what happens in the public sphere. We’ll never engage everyone, but that doesn’t mean government has a pass not to try — the stakes are too high. Open government and transparency, more than buzzwords, are about creating smarter and fairer public policy. Now is the time for our public leaders to embrace innovation in government and do their part to help build a 21st century democracy.

Phil Ting is the Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco and the founder of Reset SF, an online community that crowdsources ideas from city residents and policy experts to make the city’s government more efficient and effective.

 

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