Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Sharing Is Easy: Open Source Advocates Push For Better Civic Apps

by Matt Rosenberg October 27th, 2014

LONDON (10/27/14) – In May of this year a network of 25 different civic technology organizations met in Santiago, Chile to figure out how to better succeed at giving their work away for free. The problem is that too many well-intentioned civic apps – be they web-based, mobile or “any kind of civic technology which helps people solve any problem to do with public life“ – simply fail to lift off. That’s according to Tom Steinberg, director of U.K.-based innovators mySociety. They’re developers of FixMyStreet and a series of other platforms to help people engage in politics and policy. Project failures can be due to poor design, he said, but in other cases the culprit may be a lack of shareable parts from cohorts. Steinberg spoke Sunday, October 26th during a forum he led at the Mozilla Festival (Moz Fest), here.

Making Public Access To Public Records Easier

by Matt Rosenberg October 25th, 2014

LONDON – Some of the best public interest news reporting starts with public records requests made by journalists or advocates, to governments. But it can be a sticky, confrontational process. Jeremia Kimelman thinks public records requesters can do better.

Kimelman, a Code for America Fellow, led a session Saturday, October 25, at the 2014 Mozilla Festival (MozFest), harvesting strategies on how to adapt records requests to the data age in a way that respects participants on both sides of the process. One essential ingredient for those requesting  records is decidedly low-tech, said Kimelman: “(It’s) empathy. You need to actually pick up the telephone and call the public records officer and establish a relationship. In the end despite the laws it’s a people-based system.”

The U.S. Government’s Watchdogs: More Bark Than Bite

by Matt Rosenberg October 20th, 2014

In September, nearly four dozen U.S. Inspectors General signed a letter to Congressional committee leaders protesting the lack of transparency and access to material needed for their watchdog investigations. Yet it’s not usually inaccessible information that cuts the impact of the Inspectors. It’s the indifference of their parent agencies and Congress to the important findings they do produce.

Consider the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Inspector General, which reported that NRC’s failure to flag construction project changes at Southern California Edison’s San Onofre nuclear plant – tied to steam generator malfunctions – led to the site’s shutdown.

Not the first time

The incident at San Onofre was not a first. In October of 2013 the NRC’s IG reported the agency was failing to adequately regulate “active component aging” at nuclear plants nationwide, and recommended ways to improve oversight. Serious stuff, tied to heightened risks of reactor shutdowns, safety equipment failures and other potential safety risks. Yet in July of this year the IG had to issue a stern written warning to the NRC that its response to the report had been too dismissive. In 2007, the NRC’s IG warned the NRC it was then seven years overdue in addressing recommendations to improve safety oversight of uranium fuel production centers and other “major fuel cycle facilities.”

It’s part of a broader problem. In early 2009, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that 13,800 IG recommendations made in reports from 2001 through 2008 had not been implemented, costing the nation $26 billion in identified savings. In a new version of that report issued in 2013, the totals jumped to 17,000 IG recommendations not fully implemented, at a cost of $67 billion.

Where do numbers like this come from? A few clues.

Sean Parker’s Penance – A California Beaches Mobile App

by Matt Rosenberg October 15th, 2014

It sounded like deja vu all over again: more bad news for beach-hoarding magnates who may employ gates, landscaping, fake garages and fake trespassing signs restricting access to public lands. A California court in late September ruled against Vinod Khosla, Sun Microsystems co-founder and clean energy investor, saying he couldn’t keep a locked gate to Martin’s Beach, reached along his Half Moon Bay property. Then Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill turning the screws on Khosla further. Still, the much-publicized case is but a speck of sand on the beach. There are 1,150 access points along the state’s 1,270-mile Pacific coastline, and many are tricky to find or use. The good news: fairly soon there’ll be a new way around that.

WA Teaching Standards Earn C- From Ed Reform Group

by Matt Rosenberg February 11th, 2014

In a January 30 report evaluating all 50 states on the sufficiency of their K-12 teaching profession laws, rules and regulations, a national education reform group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other ed reform interests gives Washington State an overall grade of C- including a D+ for “delivering well-prepared teachers.” The C- for Washington includes four more sub-section grades: three of C- for policies to identify, retain and “exit” ineffective teachers, and a C+ for “expanding the teaching pool.” The information comes in the Washington detail section of the “2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook” report by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

State: Full-Day-K Packs No Sustained Punch, Academically

by Matt Rosenberg January 29th, 2014

Washington state legislators seven years ago set a goal to fund all-day kindergarten in all public schools here by the 2017-18 school year but a new report they commissioned says the practice can’t now be called cost-effective because the academic achievement gains associated with it usually fade fast and any social and emotional learning benefits to children from it can’t be adequately documented.

The new report to lawmakers from the government-funded non-partisan Washington State Institute for Public Policy reviewed the research literature and based on 10 rigorous studies that included control groups, found that compared to the half-day alternative, “the benefits of investing in full-day kindergarten are unlikely to outweigh the costs because the initial test score gains are not usually sustained.” However, if stakeholders can figure out how to sustain the initial test score gains then the investment “has the potential to be cost-beneficial with relatively low risk,” the report added.

WA Mileage Charge To Replace Gas Tax Gaining Speed ?

by Matt Rosenberg January 27th, 2014

A special state advisory group issued a new report this month to lawmakers and Governor Jay Inslee that there is a viable business case for a road user charge in Washington to replace the failing by-the-gallon state gas tax. Consultants and members of the steering body January 23rd gave an update to the legislature’s House Transportation Committee on the findings, and are now seeking almost $1 million more before the current session ends so they can refine operational concepts, policy particulars, a pilot program and transition strategies.

The state Road Usage Charge Steering Committee’s latest report says that if rates were held constant until 2040 the road user charge – a more sweeping approach than current piecemeal electronic tolling in the Seattle region – would yield $2 billion to $3 billion more in net revenue than the gas tax for surface transportation needs in the state. The report says any of the three user charge methods considered would help ensure “everyone pays more of their fair share for using the roads.”

Now, ever-more fuel efficient internal combustion engine vehicles and their electric and hybrid counterparts pay a lower share of upkeep for the road system because they use less gas while still adding to wear and tear. State reports in recent years have projected that the current gas tax would produce $5 billion less by 2023 than earlier forecasted due to better average mileage and the gradual rise of electrics and hybrids; and that the purchasing power of Washington’s gas tax revenues have been cut by half between 2001 and 2011 from a 77 percent jump in the Construction Cost Index.

State Will Need to Find $2.4B to Ease Salmon Barriers

by Matt Rosenberg January 22nd, 2014

The minimum cost of complying with a 2013 federal court order to fix by 2030 some 1,019 Washington State Department of Transportation-owned culverts posing barriers to salmon passage will be a whopping $2.4 billion, lawmakers have learned. But “lack of future funding and technical complexity are creating obstacles to planning and delivery,” according to an agency presentation last week to the House Transportation Committee. Culverts are tunnel- or pipe-like structures embedded in soil to carry water, often salmon-bearing streams, under roads, railroads and trails.

WSDOT culvert at Fortson Creek on State Route 530 west of Darrington; before replacement - Source: WSDOT

Funding Sources Unclear Right Now
In an interview the Director of WSDOT’s Environmental Services Office Megan White, who led the agency presentation to the committee, said it’s not clear where the money might come from. But she said the first step this session is “talking to legislative leaders and decision makers about the challenge in front of us, in hopes there will be some focus” on developing a funding strategy.

$200M Eyed For ‘15-’17 Biennium
The agency is currently expecting to recommend inclusion of $200 million in in the 2015-17 state budget for court-ordered culvert work on project scoping, design and construction. WSDOT would expect to request successively higher amounts in following state budgets, and now has just about $20 million it can carry forward into the next budget for that, according to White. She added, “The level of funding goes beyond what the agency can provide from existing resources. We don’t want to be in the position of testing what non-compliance means,” with respect to the U.S. court order.

AG’s Office: Compliance Would Be A ‘Heavy Lift’
Senior Assistant Attorney General Joseph Shorin said the “sweeping” federal injunction poses a “heavy lift” for the state with a financial compliance burden that’s “extremely expensive.” Although the state is appealing, it also must at present proceed as if the ruling will stay in force, he said; there is no “stay” or suspension of the court’s directive during the appeal.

Public Data Ferret’s Washington State+Environment archive

Tribes and U.S. Sued State
In the case, U.S. v. Washington, 21 Native American tribes and the federal government sued Washington alleging that mid-1800s treaties guaranteeing tribes the right to take fish also require the state to avoid actions that reduce yields, but that improperly built or poorly maintained culverts under state roads have done exactly that. Some culverts empty back into the steam from too high a height or move water at too high a velocity, others are filled with forest debris.

The case area is roughly the northwestern third of Washington state and its many rivers and streams from which salmon swim to Puget Sound and to which they return – or try to return – to spawn. The federal ruling also includes a much smaller number of culverts overseen by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Natural Resources, and Washington State Parks, which must be remedied by 2016.

County, Local Barrier Culverts Are Many, But Not Included
However the targeted state culverts don’t include thousands more in Washington which also pose barriers to salmon passage but aren’t required to be fixed. According to another presentation to the committee last week by DFW, county and local government associations, another 2,264 salmon barrier culverts are operated by county governments and 783 overseen by cities in the case area.

Maximizing Bang-for-Buck
With almost $300,000 in county and local fuel tax revenues DFW will help “inventory, prioritize and study” those barriers with results submitted to lawmakers by the end of June next year. The state, county and local governments are hoping to develop a coordinated approach based on watersheds, “prioritizing work up and down the streams that could have the largest impact on fish recovery.”

SR 530 Fortson Creek WSDOT culvert with new stream crossing - Source: WSDOT

According to a presentation to the committee last week by Shorin of the AG’s Office, the court order directs the state to fix its salmon barrier culverts preferably by avoiding “the need for the roadway to cross the stream” or failing that, by building a “full-span bridge.” The last option is to use a ‘”stream simulation methodology.”

Private Sector Initiative
In the meantime, noted the Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Forest Protection Association in their own presentation to legislators last week, forestry companies and small landowners have spent at least $18 million to repair some 5,142 smaller salmon habitat barriers on private land, but at least 585 such projects remain. To date, 285 salmon barrier culverts overseen by WSDOT have been corrected.

The $2.4 billion estimate for fixing the remaining WSDOT culverts doesn’t include those identified as salmon barriers after the court ruling, nor does it include the 10 percent of the total that the court said can be deferred past 2030.


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