An API for Ethics in City Government
By: Phil Ting
Regular readers of Reset know we are all about crowdsourcing solutions to San Francisco city problems. But as we think about unlocking the wisdom of the crowds to make our city government more innovative, we should also look at crowdsourcing solutions to make our government more accountable – even more ethical.
“Sunshine” has been called the greatest disinfectant when it comes to cleaning up municipal waste and corruption. But the challenge with our Sunshine ordinance laws is that they have become a tangle of almost unenforceable, and certainly unenforced, rules and regulations.
That’s why I feel strongly that we need to stop arguing about what is, and is not, in the public domain and start making just about everything public.
Everything Should Be Public
And I mean just about everything. I think that every email, every memo, every check, every contract, every phone message, every tweet, every cell phone call and every other single government document that is not part of an employee personnel decision, about an immediate public safety issue, protected by state law or part of a pending lawsuit should be made public at the time it is created.
The reality is that technology has outstripped our city’s Sunshine laws. And it would be far less expensive – and far more productive – simply to have all digital public records (which is now nearly all public records) simply posted to a City Sunshine Site at the time they are created. This site should quickly include, and certainly be the basis of, an Application Programming Interface (API) that gives San Franciscans the tools and the data they need to help hold government accountable.
And It Shouldn’t Stop with the Mayor’s Office
So as mayor, if I send an email to my chief of staff on an issue – that should be made public when I send it. When I have a meeting at City Hall or anywhere else, that would be part of an online calendar, which should be made public. A direct message – a tweet from the mayoral account – just about anything that is created, said or discussed should be made public in real time.
Every document created by city government (with the noted exceptions) should be made available to the public at the time it is created. That should include every check written – and every dollar spent or promised. And every contract. And every subcontract. Everything.
There is simply no supportable reason for any work product created by a public employee to be hidden from the public – or perhaps even worse, to be put behind the barrier of a “sunshine” process that is now so complicated, time consuming and expensive that it promises public accountability without always being able to deliver it.
The Technology Exists Now to Let the Sunshine Work
The reality is that most of us have used free or low-cost sharing programs like Google Docs or BaseCamp. The technology exists right now to share documents without spending years and years and millions of dollars writing new code. When we send an email, save a file or enter a calendar item at City Hall or anywhere in city government, those keystrokes could and should be mirrored immediately on our Sunshine website.
Why is this important? Because we are now spending nearly $7 billion per year to do everything from run a world-class hospital to run a far from world-class municipal railway. We need to make sure this money is being spent honestly and effectively. And the best way to make sure that happens is to guarantee that it is all happening in public.
Open Data in Public Documents
In the past few years, San Francisco has led the way in the Open Data movement. You can now go online and see where every Muni bus is in real time – and download the data set. You can find data sets ranging from where the food truck permits have been pulled to where crimes have occurred.
Government is slowly transforming itself into a data platform that residents can use to make the government work even better.
There is no reason why the same model of Open Data shouldn’t apply to nearly all government data and information.
In the Mayor’s race, candidates have been offering proposals about how to beef up sunshine at City Hall and ethics in government. While there are some good ideas in these proposals – something key is missing. We are missing.
Yes – we might need some new bureaucratic tools to keep the politicians accountable. But the best way to do this is to give the public the tools we need to do the job ourselves. And that means an ethics API – and the data set to make it work – should be at the very core for our efforts to Reset San Francisco.