Eight steps for achieving government transparency In public meetings

With the government shutdown among other challenges, 2013 has been a tough year for transparency and openness in the federal government. But that doesn’t mean government officials on the state and local levels can’t take steps to achieve transparency in their public meetings.

During the October government shutdown, we saw plenty of lapses in government transparency in the form of information blackouts, and Americans were none too happy. During those dark 17 days, calls to government communications officials and congressional offices were met with recorded messages, Freedom of Information Act requests were met with silence, the Bureau of Labor Statistics was unable to release its monthly jobs report, and the White Houses’ @opengov Twitter account was inactive.

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Democracy is impossible to achieve without government transparency and open access to information. Revitalizing trust between citizens and government officials is going to take time, but government decisions should never be made behind closed doors. By providing live audio and video streaming of public meetings and making public records searchable online, citizens can have an equal voice in the political decision-making process.

Consider the case of the Tennessee State Legislature; it held a public meeting that drew in fewer than 100 in-person attendees, but 1,400 citizens watched live on the Legislature’s website. Thousands more watched and listened to segments of government meetings on-demand as early as the next morning.

To create a similarly accessible environment, government agencies should follow these eight steps for achieving transparency in government meetings:

1. Make it live online. The Web has quickly become Americans’ communication tool of choice. Streaming public meetings, hearings, and proceedings live online allows citizens who can’t make the trip to city hall to see and hear meetings in real-time. This gives them a stake in the political process and a broader understanding of government decisions overall. All videos should be archived within 12 hours of the meeting -- technology can help to encode meetings live and publish to the Web through an automated workflow.

2. Integrate it with the public record. Government meetings can be lengthy, and it can be hard to sort through and find the relevant information. That’s why a best practice has been established, an “integrated public record,” which involves compiling agendas, minutes, audio, and video recordings, and any related digital documents in one place, making sure they’re archived, cross-linked, and searchable by keyword.

3. Ensure it’s ADA compliant. Public meetings have to be accessible for all citizens, even the disabled and hard of hearing. All videos from government agencies should comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and include closed captioning. It has other benefits, too: transcripts can help to make videos more searchable.

4. Make it searchable, downloadable, and syndicated. Meta data in the form of transcriptions, closed captioning, and tagging helps citizens find exactly what they’re looking for and pushes government transparency forward. Citizens should also be able to download files and subscribe to new content via an RSS feed. These features are easy to set up and are critical for delivering timely information to the public.

5. Share, share, share. Blogs and social media are quickly replacing the newspaper as citizens’ primary means of information gathering. Videos and corresponding documents from government meetings should include shortlinks for easy sharing on social media.

6. Protect it. Sites like YouTube can be great for distributing public meeting content, but many of these content sites lack security controls. Government agencies should publish and store their meeting records on their own websites to ensure they can properly protect and authenticate the information.

7. Offer it for free. Government officials should never, ever block data behind a paywall or offer it only as a paid service. Transparency means open information for everyone. Requiring payment for access would simply shut out low-income citizens and decrease engagement for others.

8. Allow citizens to participate. Once steps have been taken to stream audio or video recordings of public meetings online, the next step for government officials is to bring citizens into the conversation. Every government agency should provide an online forum or portal for citizens to debate, post ideas, participate in polls, comment, and otherwise give feedback in the decision-making process.

Government transparency is easy to achieve with the help of new technologies. Software as a service (SaaS) solutions can automate many of these processes and take the time, money, and legwork out of keeping an open public record. Encouraging citizen participation in the political process starts with keeping government meetings open and accessible -- and these simple eight steps illustrate how easy that process really is.

Spengler is CEO and co-founder of Granicus, an award-winning cloud applications provider for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation. Connect with Tom and the Granicus team on Twitter and LinkedIn.