Thursday, October 27, 2011

NOLA Satellite Government

Some colleagues of mine at Tulane have been developing a pretty awesome website that can only advance accountability and transparency in municipal government here in New Orleans.  And lord knows we need more of that.

The site, called NOLA Satellite Government, seeks to take publicly-available information on all sorts of public entities who manage programs and budgets that are supported by public taxpayer funds and collate them with the members of the boards of directors who oversee such entities.  There's a pretty cool visual network program on the site that shows how individuals are connected across boards and agencies.

While the site doesn't propose to draw any conclusions about what these networks mean, it does help citizens have a more accurate visual representation of the behind-the-scenes power brokers and how they are linked to one another.

At its best, this site can provide a starting point for other researchers to use this publicly-available information as a launching pad for investigating much more closely some curious and eyebrow-raising connections.

If these power-brokers have nothing to hide, they should welcome this site as a step towards greater transparency and public accountability of governing institutions in front of the citizens who are paying for them.  If any of these power-brokers complain about the site for whatever reason, that will be a red flag which will hopefully encourage greater scrutiny by investigative journalists into the operations of the programs/organizations/institutions they oversee.

There's nothing but good that can come of this, and I am glad to know the folks behind this effort.  Check out the site, use the information there to spur your own investigations, and write up what you find out on your blogs.  Spread the word and hold our elected and appointed public servants to account.

Here's an article from the Times-Picayune describing the website.


Eric said...

The thing about transparency is that if you are going to undertake it upon yourself to look closely at municipal budgets, you should also take it upon yourself to understand the factors that drive them.

We had a big brouhaha in our town recently because the City spent tens of thousands of dollars buying new golf carts at our municipal golf cart, at the same time they had implemented staff cuts at our police department.

A local got wind of this information and put it up on Facebook, where it quickly exploded into a major controversy.
People were outraged, calling for the heads of city council members.

It turned out that the staff cuts were due part of a plan that actually increases efficiency in the PD. Many of our police officers were complaining that they couldn't log enough hours to make enough money to support their families. Meanwhile, some of our Fire and EMT people had been complaining about having to work too much. The City Manager struck a deal to do some cross training between the departments and combine some of the dispatcher duties, which allowed everybody a more flexible work schedule, and also made it possible to fill all the necessary back-up positions for all departments with a fewer total number of employees... hence the downsizing.

In the meantime, the lease for the golf courses golf carts had ended, and the city determined they would save a significant amount of money by purchasing their own golf carts. (Ironically, most of the savings comes from taking advantage of a federal electric vehicle rebate to buy much nicer golf carts manufactured to be 'street legal'... the rebate is specifically designed to exclude golf carts, but it only regulates what the manufacturer's intended use of the vehicle is, not what they actually end up being used for).

Anyway, long story short, the conroversy generated by this has caused permanent bad blood between some council members and the public who came screaming for their heads. And as we get into a more transparent world (as we absolutely should) these types of scenarios are going to become more common. It's great to have more knowledge, but we have a responsibility to use that knowledge wisely.

Huck said...

It's great to have more knowledge, but we have a responsibility to use that knowledge wisely.

Agreed. But we can't use knowledge wisely if we don't have the knowledge in the first place.

Fact is, in your example, the end result was a much more informed public about the specific nature of decision-making and the reasons behind such decision. The fact that there is permanent bad blood is unfortunate, but rests only on the people who can't let go of their grudges. One would hope that most people in your community (and I suspect this is probably actually the case) could look, in the end, at the truth and recognize that there's no reason to remain angry and a lot of reason to be content in the greater knowledge of the truth.

I'd much rather have some lingering bad blood at the personal level by people who can't get over themselves, but know that nothing untoward was going on behind the scenes in municipal government than to find out that corruption and malfeasance were rampant in municipal government. Imagine the permanent bad blood that would have engendered.

Eric said...

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying transparency is a bad thing.

I'm just saying that if citizens don't act responsibly with this informaiton, they will soon find themselves with a severe shortage of people willing to serve as public officials, and this is especially true at the municipal level, where such positions often carry little or no monetary reimbursement.

In the case I mentioned above, I know two of our councilmen personally, and the matter has convinced one of them not to run for re-election (and he'd almost certainly retain his seat if he did), and the other was so soured by it that his heart is no longer in the game, which is just as bad.

In this instance, I don't think the fact that the public is more informed on these specific issues outweighs the damage that was done by the controversy. I don't want that information hidden from anyone, but in this particular case the controversy was started because the budget was published in a local newspaper, and I'm not so sure I still think that is a good idea. It should be easily accessible information, but maybe people who want to see it should have to go looking for it.

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