Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

Citizen Activism: Not So Fast

by April 5th, 2010

By Jerry Large

You can improve the world and have a good time, too.

West Seattle writer Paul Rogat Loeb has spent decades exploring and writing about community involvement and citizen activism.

Among the things he’s learned is that change can take a long time and those who laugh along the way last the distance.

We talked about the updated version of his book, “Soul of a Citizen,” which first came out in 1999.

It’s full of stories of people who saw a problem and got busy doing something about it.

Loeb said the book is about being hopeful, “giving people permission to enjoy life as they are being active.”

“When I see somebody like Desmond Tutu who’s been up against so many issues, not just apartheid but going to work in Rwanda and Haiti and taking on the Iraq war and speaking out on climate change. He’s involved in every issue you could imagine and yet if you see his presence it’s the most delightful presence imaginable,” Loeb said. “He’s having a really good time and he’s laughing and joking.”

Loeb transformed two of his own worries into fuel for updating the book.

He saw people who had been engaged in the 2008 presidential campaign losing heart because the issues that animated them weren’t being resolved quickly or in ways that matched their expectations.

“Most of the time when you win you are not winning everything,” he said. “You have to keep pushing for the long haul.”

He opens the book with the story of Rosa Parks. Everyone knows about the seamstress who sat on a bus and challenged segregation.

But people think the change was quick. It took a dozen years. And it involved lots of people and preparation.

The other issue that he wanted to address is climate change, which didn’t seem quite as urgent when he was working on the first edition.

When confronting such big challenges, he said, people shouldn’t be so intimidated that they fail to act.

Taking steps that are now available would make a big difference, Loeb said.

“I have solar panels on my house in rainy West Seattle, and basically my electrical usage is balanced out by what they do,” he said.

The book leans toward liberal activists and causes, but Loeb does include some conservatives. He profiles Rich Cizik, who helped organize the evangelical Climate Initiative, for instance.

And he devotes a chapter to a partnership between the Christian Coalition and the liberal MoveOn to preserve equal access to the Internet when some telecom companies were lobbying to create tiers of service.

I asked where citizen involvement was missing locally. He said hardly anyone knows much about the Port of Seattle.

The Port involves huge amounts of money and lots of jobs and affects the environment, but media and citizen groups haven’t been paying much attention to it.

The League of Women Voters of Greater Seattle is holding a forum on the Port on May 6 (

I know that because Loeb and I spoke at a league event last week, along with Nancy Amidei, who directs the Civic Engagement Project.

That event was called Making Democracy Work, and some of the people there have been active in community life for quite a few years. Amidei says she’s a democracy addict, and I suspect that is true for many of the people who attended the event.

When I called Loeb to talk about his book, the first thing he mentioned was the tone of the gathering.

“It was a serious political event addressing serious issues … and they were laughing. They were having a great time.”

A light spirit is a good way to have staying power when you’re dealing with heavy issues.

Government Keeps Troubled-Doctors List A Secret

by April 2nd, 2010

By John Ryan

Over the past 20 years, health-care providers in Washington state have paid out more than $1 billion in malpractice lawsuits. That’s according to a federal database that helps hospitals avoid hiring incompetent caregivers. It’s a lot harder for members of the public to dig into the backgrounds of doctors and nurses.

Rest of story here.

Open Government West Explores, “Who’s The Data For?”

by March 30th, 2010

According to the “Unlocking Government” report released recently by the consulting firm Deloitte Canada, core principles of open government include these:

  • Data should be easily accessible online. In today’s world, open access to data means that they should be easy to find.
  • Data need to be offered in accessible formats. If the government provides access to new information through an interactive map, for example, users should also be able to parse the actual raw data (to reuse it in a new application) from this source.
  • Collaboration between government agencies is important. Public leaders should expect their data to be combined with data from other sources and used in unique and novel ways and should approach the prospect in a spirit of collaboration and creativity.
  • Governments should be open about being open. Agencies should not quietly put data online. Rather, they should tell the public what they are doing and why, while seeking their participation and engagement.
  • These excellent guidelines help underscore that open government isn’t just for the usual suspects; namely, certain public officials, advocates, wonks and geeks. (I use these terms lovingly, FYI). At a Saturday, March 27 “unconference” session at Open Government West in Seattle, titled “Who Is The Data For?,” systems thinker and user experience designer Bryce Johnson (right) highlighted a range of answers. Designers and advocates should bear in mind, Johnson stressed, that among open government users are media; new residents including “English As A Second Language” immigrants; visitors and local tourists; families and other residents; government agencies; government vendors, and other businesses. Another point made during the conversation was that all the current emphasis on data and data sets shouldn’t obscure that documents – good old basic, revelatory public documents – need to be front and center also. That’s the idea behind a searchable database named Public Data Ferret that we’ve developed and located at its own special hub on this blog.

    What should the front door to the house of open government look like? The Beehive State has a pretty good sense of it. Utah has transformed its main state government Web portal into an impressive open government site. Utah walks the talk on easy access to and accessible formats for public data. The “dashboard,” or main page array of entry points by category is powerful in its simplicity, and relevance. Right away, the participant is invited to walk down hallways to “State Spending,” “State Contracts,” “Lobbyist Info,” “Campaign Contributions,” “Public Meetings,” “Data Sources,” and “Legislation.” This is the way to frame things. Click on “State Spending” and you go straight to the state’s public finance transparency site, where you can quickly access an appropriations reports menu and then among other items, the FY 2010-2011 appropriations summary, which is remarkably comprehensible. Utah’s getting the framing and the content right.