Talking to Local Gov About Transparency

A recent transparency conference provided one Virginia local official the opportunity to explain the challenge governments like his face in embracing transparency initiatives.

Craig Fifer, e-government manager for the city of Alexandria, Va., attended TransparencyCamp 2011, just to see what it was all about. What he didn't expect was that, out of more than 200 people participating (including many federal folks), he realized he was very likely the lone local government official in the room.

He knew he wasn't the only local government official interested in transparency -- he knew many others like him existed, they just weren't at this particular conference. Instead of worrying that he would become a target, Fifer used his unique affiliation to provide participants an opportunity during the loosely-scheduled conference to ask a municipal guy about transparency. He recently rehashed the session with me in a phone call last week.

"I expected that people were just going to say, 'You need to publish more data, you need to publish more data, you need to publish more data,'" Fifer said during our call. Instead, what ensued was a healthy discussion about the challenges local government may face in embracing transparency initiatives, especially those from third-party developers.

If websites or mobile apps are to address the function of government, they should really involve government more actively, Fifer told his session's participants. Fifer's example to show potential challenges between developers and government was Alexandria's work with SeeClickFix, a third-party app that allows citizens to submit and track service requests. Past submissions to SeeClickFix sometimes didn't make their way to the right jurisdiction or official who could provide a solution, potentially affecting the city's performance ranking on the site.

Fifer told the group that the city isn't opposed to a program like SeeClickFix -- if there's a pothole, the city should know about it so it can be fixed, he said. But if a request doesn't get to someone who can fix the problem, that's another problem. "Crowdsourcing is great, but if you involve 99 percent of the crowd in the effort but not the 1 percent that can actually do something about the problem, then in the end it's not really effective," he put it in the session.

Fifer says that SeeClickFix developers and city officials are currently working together to make service requests a much more seamless process. The ideal solution would be to have an open standard that developers, 3,000-something counties and countless villages, special districts and townships could use to track these requests.

Explaining the local gov POV seemed to help transparency advocates better understand the if and why a municipality may struggle with transparency. After the session, participants came up thanking him as someone from local government who participated in such an event.

"I'm sorry that people are pleasantly surprised to see that someone from local government at a transparency conference," said Fifer. "It should not be surprising. It should be routine. It should be obvious."

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.