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Council members grill staff over pace of Open Government Initiative

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin staffers were on the defense Wednesday in the face of an audit that criticizes the city’s efforts toward electronic open government. In a lengthy presentation delivered to members of the Council’s Audit and Finance Committee, Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes, Chief Information Officer Steven Elkins, and the head of Austin’s Corporate Communications Department, Doug Matthews, did their best to qualify the audit’s findings.


Council members seemed unmoved. “Why did it take so long for us to get here?” asked Council Member Bill Spelman. “The reason I’m asking the question is not because I care how long it took, but because we are here where we are and I worry that the length of time that it took for us to get here might be indicative of so more fundamental problem that is going to stymie our ability to move forward.”


Council Member Laura Morrison was also unimpressed. “I do appreciate that there have been accomplishments that address some of the items that were in the open government,” she said. “What has been missing – and I believe that we are on the path to correcting that now – what has clearly been missing was the perspective in management of a coordinated framework on open government.”


In 2012, city officials launched the AustinGO Project, a web site designed, according to the audit, to improve “resident access to needed information and educational resources and (increase) transparency and accountability for the City of Austin.”


Since, active participants in the technology community have criticized the implementation of the project. Austin Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission Chair Chip Rosenthal summed up the concern Wednesday.


“We are concerned that the City of Austin Open Government Initiative, launched nearly two years ago, has faltered, and is on the brink of failure,” he told Council members.


The audit contains two major findings. Both suggest that the AustinGO project is not fully in line with prior Council action. The first is that “a lack of defined strategy is impacting the city’s ability to successfully implement the Open Government initiative.” The second is that “governance of the city’s web site does not ensure that all city web content is managed in accordance with best practices, which may impact the quality of the information provided to citizens.”


Though city management concurred with the auditors’ findings, they presented a vigorous, preemptive defense Wednesday just before Rosenthal gave his presentation. In it, Snipes, Elkins, and Matthews insisted that city staff had accomplished much given the relatively brief amount of time they had to put AustinGO together.


Those thoughts echoed management’s formal response to the audit. In an August 26 memo, Snipes writes that “significant (progress) has been made over the past several years in making City data available to the public as well as in creating plans to further the goals of Open Governance.”


City management released a document designed to direct open governance procedures across city departments the same day that the City Auditor presented his audit. Council members first passed a resolution that instructed staff to begin open governance efforts in December, 2011.


The audit, completed before management released the governance directive noted that fact. “City staff has drafted an Open Governance directive, which includes guidelines for making departmental data more accessible,” the audit says. “However, to date, the directive has not been adopted.  Meanwhile, the city web team has taken on several tasks related to open government in addition to their regular duties and responsibilities. However, without a defined strategic framework, elements of the (Council) resolution may be implemented ineffectively.”

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