Off To a Good Start: Mayor Gray Asks DC Agencies to Be More Transparent

January 11th, 2011 | by Jenny Reed

While the Council may not be taking many new steps to increase transparency, Mayor Gray certainly isn’t wasting any time.  In one of his first acts as Mayor, he tasked DC agencies to come up within 120 days with ideas to improve transparency, public participation and collaboration with government.  The memo also sets the tone that Mayor Gray would like DC agencies to expand public access to information.  It is a good sign.

In that spirit of public participation, DCFPI would like to throw out some ideas for the agencies—and the City Administrator and Chief Technology Officer who are tasked with coordinating this effort—to consider in their transparency plans for DC:

Budget Briefings

Have you seen DC’s budget? Have you read DC’s budget?  The budget is one of the most important policy documents released by the DC government each year, but it isn’t so easy for the public to use the budget to understand how their tax dollars are being allocated.  Mayor Gray should require DC agencies to hold budget briefings between the release of the Mayor’s budget and the agency’s budget oversight hearing before the Council.  This would give the public a chance to hear from the agency’s staff about how funds are proposed to be spent and allow the public to ask questions before the oversight hearings.

Performance and Caseload Data

In addition to how DC is spending taxpayer dollars, DC agencies also should be more open about what the public is getting in return.  Continued improvements in DC’s performance measurement system are needed, but for now agencies can take the lead from Councilmember Cheh’s Open Government Act.  One part of this bill would require agencies to inventory the data they collect on everything from outcomes to caseloads to data reported to the federal government, and publish it.  Agencies should reach out to stakeholders to get input on the best format for presenting the data to the public in a way that is meaningful and easy to understand.

Federal funds

Many critical services are provided with federal dollars.  Take the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD & TB Administration (or HASTA), where over 85 percent of their budget is made up of federal funds.  Yet DC provides very little information on how federal funds are used and how they complement the local dollars being spent on programs and services.  Agencies should put more information on federal grants on their websites, including what federal grants the agency is applying for and what federal grants the agency has received.

Bring back CAPSTAT—to the public

Remember CAPSTAT?   Once a week, the directors of DC government agencies were brought together with the Mayor and City Administrator to come up with potential solutions to important government problems such as reducing violent crime, improving snow removal, and DC Public Schools security, just to name a few.  In the beginning, the meetings and action steps were put online.  But public access to CAPSTAT suddenly went away a few years ago (a good rundown is on Greater Greater Washington’s site here).

CAPSTAT helped improve the transparency of DC government because it allowed the public to see how important performance problems were being tackled.  It is unclear at this point if Mayor Gray is bringing CAPSTAT back.  We hope he does and that he makes the sessions and reports public again.  CAPSTAT could even have public collaboration and participation by allowing the public to suggest topics to tackle.

Let the Information Flow Creatively

There are many other ways to improve transparency, public participation and public collaboration with the DC government.  We haven’t even touched on communications improvements like the popular Twitter accounts DDOT and DCRA have established.  We are sure that many others have good ideas.  We hope you’ll share them with Mayor Gray, the City Administrator and Chief Technology Officer and that they in turn will start sharing the ideas they receive with the public.

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