Technology can allow the city to take a huge step forward in public access -- right now
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Imagine sitting at home or in your office, or in your favorite café and listening in on what are now secret, backroom policy discussions and decisions in the San Francisco mayor's office. Imagine having access to an immediate transcript of the talks. Imagine being able to read internal e-mail discussions among city staffers about issues that affect you without ever filing a public records request. In fact, imagine never having to file another written request for public documents; imagine just going to a city Web site, entering a search term, and finding all of the records yourself.
Imagine filing a complaint with a city agency and tracking the issue, minute by minute, as it works its way through the system.
Imagine listening on your cell phone to any policy body as it meets in city hall.
All of this is possible, today. Much of it is not only consistent with but actually required by local law. And it won't cost the city more than a modest amount of money.
Transparency is a common buzzword during this presidential campaign; the Barack Obama campaign has even issued a white paper describing policy and technological ways to embrace it. He's talking about live Internet feeds of meetings about significant issues involving executive branch appointees as well as for those of regulatory departments (a program that would go far beyond what you see on C-SPAN).
So there's no reason San Francisco can't take the lead in using technology generally simple, off the shelf, existing technology to dramatically increase sunshine at City Hall and public participation in local government.
Proposition G, the city's 1999 sunshine law, mandates that San Francisco use "all technological and economical means to ensure efficient, convenient and low cost access to public information on the Internet." Here are five easy ways to do that:
1. Fully adopt the voyeur concept for city meetings. This is the idea that the public should be able to observe and engage in government decision making all government decision making.
All policy meetings in City Hall should at the very least be broadcast as audio on the Web and available via phone teleconference. In other words, the meetings should be streamed online, and that stream should be accessible by calling a free conference line. This is already standard practice in the business world and is working well for many investors in public companies that disclose financial information in compliance with Securities and Exchange Commission rules. It can be done for little or no cost with services like blogtalkradio.com, skype.com, freeconferencecalls.com, and webex.com.
Today only a limited number of public meetings are broadcast, mostly because the only outlet is SFG-TV and resources are limited. But audio streaming is a no-brainer there's no need for a staffer to control cameras, the microphones are already set up, and these days just about every room has a speakerphone.
Currently, the SFG-TV video coverage isn't posted on the city's Web site, sfgov.org, until two or three days after a meeting. That's too long; the audio should be made immediately available online. And the Internet URL and dial-in options should be listed on the meeting agenda so that news media and citizen bloggers can instantly refer back to the URL with timecodes to point out specifics, and include them in their stories and blog postings.
With streaming, you can follow along in real time when you are stuck at home taking care of a sick relative, or at the office listening with headphones, or you are disabled and can't cross town to attend in person.
The city already has a great contract for real time captioning the text you see at the bottom of the screen for video. It's not 100 percent accurate, but it's pretty decent. That could be expanded to cover streaming audio, and the text could be computer translated (or translated by bilingual typists) into other common languages. The advantage of media integrated with RTC is that specialized search engines like blikx.com and everyzing.com can be used to find relevant phrases and begin playback directly at that spot. And transcriptions can be posted online in real time (somewhat like live blogging!) so that if you are late for a meeting you can quickly scan what has already transpired, and by the end of the meeting you will effectively have a draft of minutes. That saves a lot of staff time and provides an immeasurably more useful historic record.
Today, video recordings of city meetings can't be downloaded the only way to review it or post a clip to YouTube is to order a $10 DVD, which arrives a week after you send a check (and no, they don't take PayPal). And while many other city meetings make audio recordings, you have to pay $1 for an audio tape and pick it up during business hours or pay more for postage. They all should be available as free podcasts.
The SFG-TV video shows more than just the speakers and officials; there are other angles, and they ought to be available too. It's important to know who attended the meeting but never said anything, who greeted whom, and even who ignored whom.
2. Let the public do the broadcasting. All City Hall meeting rooms should provide wi-fi (and electrical outlets), and the system ought to have enough speed to allow bloggers or activists to upload high-quality video broadcasts of meetings that SFG-TV can't afford to cover. It can be done using existing services like Justin.tv, Upstream.tv, and live.yahoo.com. This would also allow live blogging and let people preparing to testify on an issue have access to the Web to do research on the spot. If the room had a projector and a screen, people who were unable to attend the meeting could still comment, either through video or just by posting text messages that the decision makers could read.
The audio broadcasting of meetings should be expanded to include all meetings between the mayor (or supervisors) and city staff. The law already requires public access to so-called passive meetings those between the mayor or department heads and outside parties that influence city policy.
3. Make public most city emails and other documents as soon as they are produced.
San Francisco city employees produce thousands of records a day e-mails, memos, reports, etc. and the vast majority of them are and should be public record. But many are deleted and others never see the light of day. When a member of the public asks for all the records on a topic, just finding those documents can be a sizable task.
But it's technologically simply to solve that problem: every time a city employee produces a document, the computer system should automatically send a back-up copy to a public web server. That way nothing would get lost or erased, and anyone looking for public information could simply go to that site and search for it him or herself.
For e-mails sent by city staff, one way might be to CC (carbon copy) an online message board (for example Google or Yahoo groups, which would be available at no cost to the city). Other approaches for instant messages, text messages and voicemails could be adopted as well. The Palo Alto City Council is already doing something like this for a narrow collection of e-mails (although not in real time).
We all know there are some city communications that must remain private or be redacted for example Attorney Client discussions or human-resource conversations regarding personnel. But there are simply ways to make sure those stay confidential: one approach might simply have the user tick a flag or answer a Yes/No Possible Redaction popup when the message is sent. Certain employees like the people who handle sensitive employee health records and certain litigators in the city attorney's office could have software that defaults to a confidential server.
The added advantage, of course, is that the computers could also make a record of the title and date of every confidential document and that information could be made public. If a dispute arose over whether the city was improperly withholding records, the public would at least know that certain documents existed.
All city files could be stored on network drives (not on local drives) with one location for default public files that would not allow overwriting or deletions and would be mirrored to a Web server and another drive for the few that may require redaction first.
4. Save all the old records. After a very embarrassing lawsuit that is threatening the Missouri governor's job, that state in January adopted an email retention system that preserves all email for at least seven years (based on federal requirements for financial records). And e-mail/instant message/text/fax retention systems are standard practice now in the financial industry (Morgan Stanley lost a $1.45 billion judgment because the company failed to preserve e-mail).
In fact, we all know storage continues to get cheaper and smaller so San Francisco should abolish any retention timeframes for electronic records and keep them all into the foreseeable future. The world-famous Internet Archive is right here in the Presidio: I suspect that group would love to archive all the city information, and keep it online, free and forever.
When paper documents are part of the public record, they should be scanned and converted to text and posted within two days. This would include discussions between staff and individual members of policy bodies and the creation of the draft agenda and supporting materials as they are obtained.
All these methods would significantly reduce the number of public records requests to the city staff and thus save the city money.
5. Make calendars public and keep communications public. Mayor Gavin Newsom won't provide detailed daily calendars even after the fact, when there is no possible security reason for keeping his workday itinerary secret. All top officials should post their calendars on the web so the public can track what they are doing.
The city needs to adopt a global policy that city business should be performed on city devices (computers, email accounts, phones) whenever possible and when city employees or officials use their own computers or hand-held communications tools, those should be forwarded immediately to the city system and made public.
San Francisco has one of the best local Sunshine laws in the country and at a time when activists at every level are looking for ways to use technology to expand public access, the city should be in the forefront. All it takes is some political will.
Here are some more ways that the city could use technology to improve public access:
1. Use a program like govtrack.us to follow legislative changes.
2. Explore ways to bring nonprofits that perform traditional government services under sunshine laws.
3. Significantly improve the city’s Crimestats system (more real-time allow alerts for crimes near you) – google mashup et al. See http://chicago.everyblock.com/crime/ 
4. Embrace e-rulemaking technology – similar to federal rulemaking use technology to get ideas online and generate more participation for those who can’t show up in a meeting.
5. Require the Police Department to issue press credentials to bloggers.
6. Fund a few open-government lawsuits to expand the boundaries on access to public records (the law provides for attorney’s fees if the suit is successful).
7. Require city agencies to post the method for obtaining public records online. Require posting of all negative determinations on home pages.
8. At budget time, mandate that each agency provide statistics as determined by SOTF on sunshine responsiveness.
9. Require an assessment of sunshine compliance as a mandatory item for all Financial/Management audits.
10. Televise SOTF and Ethics Commission formal hearings.
11. Require active Ethics investigative files to be open.
12. Embrace fully the much-improved but incomplete example of posting online all interactions as part of large contract negotiations – as was partially done with TechConnect.
13. Host accounts payable/receivables online with the scanned images of invoices paid.
Kimo Crossman is a sunshine activist. A list of many other public-access ideas is posted at sfbg.com/sunshine.