Government functions best when it is open, inclusive, responsive and accountable for its actions. Communities are strong when residents understand and participate in the civic process, have access to good, clear information, and are able to place confidence in their public officials. Transparency in government is the basis for accountability, improved decision-making, public trust, and informed participation.
The principle of open, transparent government reaches virtually every aspect of Salt Lake City’s operations — everything from the adoption of an ordinance to the posting of an annual budget or the way the City responds to a customer’s inquiry about a water bill.
The purpose of this initiative is to provide a centralized focus for the City’s ongoing efforts to provide greater transparency. The City believes this project will benefit the public by developing an overall City policy on transparency while identifying additional areas where greater transparency can lead to more effective, collaborative government.
Proposed Scope of Work
(1) Transparency of the Transparency Project. There is no better place to start with more “openness” in City government than with this project itself. This proposed scope of work is being distributed for public comment at the outset to ensure public participation in determining what the “scope of work” of the project should be. Public input will be sought throughout the project.
(2) City Transparency Policy. A variety of state and city laws address transparency in particular contexts, but there is no overarching statement of City policy on transparency. Adoption of a City Transparency Policy would not only provide guidance to City employees on how to approach particular situations, but would stand as a commitment to the residents of Salt Lake City.
(3) Documentation and Records Management. Transparency is not possible without appropriate, easy-to-understand documentation of City actions. Guidelines will be developed on the types of City actions that need to be “documented” that are not being documented today and the types of information that will be included. Good documentation provides accountability and clarity as well as the basis for the actions that have been taken.
(4) Proactive Provision of Policy Information. The City currently responds to document information requests under the State Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA). The obligation to provide access to City documents under GRAMA is triggered only by a citizen request. While GRAMA ensures “the public's right of access to information concerning the conduct of the public's business,” it does not create any affirmative obligation to provide documents independent of a request. Moreover, GRAMA only applies to existing documents. It does not provide a right to information that has not been embodied in a “document.” Guidelines will be developed encouraging such proactive provision of information to the public.
(5) Proactive Provision of Process Information. Residents and community councils are interested in giving input, making recommendations or giving feedback that matters to them, to their neighborhoods or to the city at large, but are often confused about the process of how to best communicate the information, where it should be given, or how it will be utilized. There seems to be some frustration in the community about how things get done at City Hall. For example, a recurring source of community frustration is a lack of clear information about how land use decisions are made administratively and how to appeal a land use decision once it has been made. A list of City processes warranting public explanation will be developed and appropriate explanations placed on the City website.
(6) Integrity of Process. Transparency does not exist if the process that is actually followed is different from the process that is publicly documented. The overall Policy will address “out of process” problems.
(7) Predictability and Consistency. Predictability and consistency are critical elements of effective government. Increased transparency should not only provide greater predictability and consistency but will also, through public documentation, provide the means to assess how consistent and predictable Salt Lake City government is.
(8) Identification of All Key Interests. While many actions taken by the City require public notice, public notice may not always reach all affected or interested residents. The City Transparency Policy will carefully address identification and advance notification of interest groups and methods that allow healthy dialogue of varied interests in a collaborative process so that varied impacts, opinions and options can be considered.
(9) Available Media. The City has available to it a variety of media to provide information to the public. The Transparency project will assess whether the City is using media to the fullest extent.
Websites. Greater use of the slcgov.com website will be considered in terms of two principles — information that is “user useful” as well as “user friendly.” “Searchability” and “sortability” are key functions for effective transparency. A number of City departments and divisions have their own websites. An inventory of all City websites will be compiled and this project will assess whether adequate “linkage” among the various websites is being provided.
Channel 17. The City is increasingly making use of Channel 17 to cover City Council and Planning Commission meetings and to provide general information to the public. Coverage could be extended to other public bodies such as the Board of Adjustment and the Historic Landmarks Commission. Guidelines will be developed on the most effective way to use Channel 17.
ACCELA. The new software being introduced by the Community and Economic Development Department has a “public participation and access” module. Recommendations will be developed that enhance its use. The City will also review the alternate tracks available for computer literate and non-computer literate residents.
Hummingbird Records Management Software. The project will examine possible use of this platform to provide for public searchability of specific categories of documents.
Newsletters and other media. An inventory of all such City communications will be compiled and an assessment made of whether there are any gaps or confusing duplication.
(10) Information Gathering/Public Input. This project will consider whether there are ways not currently being pursued by the City Council and other city bodies to obtain valuable public input at critical stages in the decision-making process. Online discussion boards (also known as forums) are an example of “e-democracy” that would enable residents who are unable to attend a public hearing to provide their comments.
Timing of the current formal process will also be examined. Community concern has been expressed about the lack of opportunity to provide public input at key stages, the amount of time given for public comment, how public written material is incorporated for consideration, and the weight given to public input. This project will develop guidelines to address these concerns.
(11) Additional Forms of Public Notice. Under current law, public notice consists of placement on the state website (effective October 2008), newspaper publication and posting at the City & County Building. State law encourages the City to consider additional forms of electronic notice. State and City law determine who must be given individual (usually through the mail) notice. The project will consider additional ways to give notice and/or broader individual notice to the many citizens in the city, including renters as well as homeowners.
(12) Public Participation. One of the most effective ways to provide transparency is through citizen participation and inclusion in government. The City already provides for citizen participation in a variety of contexts. Citizen advisory boards exist for a wide range of City activities—everything from the airport to sister city exchanges. Community Councils play a key role in the land-use planning process. This project will look at how effectively the City has provided for citizen participation as well as the method used and the weight given to citizen input that is received.
(13) Feedback to Citizens. Feedback to residents on how their input did (or did not) affect a public decision can be important to the public. The project will consider how such feedback can be provided effectively.
(14) Considerations Specific to the Executive Branch. The operations of the executive branch are rarely if ever subject to the Open Meetings Act. The project will consider whether there are ways to introduce greater transparency into the deliberations of the executive branch.
(15) Administrative Rule Making. The notice provisions in the Open Meetings Act provide that the legislative process followed by the City Council in adopting an ordinance will be known to the public. However, the Open Meetings Act does not apply to administrative rule making by the executive branch. Current City policy does provide that draft administrative rules will be circulated “to a reasonable audience of affected customers for comment during the development process,” but more specific guidance is necessary.
(16) Considerations Specific to the City Council. The City Council and Council staff have developed a number of communication outreach initiatives, which include making the language of public hearing notices more understandable to the public. Council staff also has been taping announcements of upcoming public hearings to air on SLCTV and the City’s website. The websites for the individual Council members are being enhanced to provide more information for constituents.
(17) Conflict of Interest. The City’s current conflict of interest chapter was enacted in 1998 and has been amended several times since then. The basic model is “disclose” and “recuse.” The project will consider whether the conflict of interest processes are sufficiently open.
Similarly, the project will consider whether the various campaign financing disclosures filed with the City are sufficiently accessible to the public.
(18) Financial Transparency. This project will follow the work of the Utah Transparency Advisory Board, which advises the State Division of Finance on what public financial information must be made available on the Internet. The Salt Lake City Council and Administration already make available to the public a wide range of budget information including City contracts. The project will look at how this information could be more easily accessible.
(19) Handling Mistakes. Mistakes are a practical reality in an organization handling large numbers of broad and complex decisions. Sometimes mistakes are discovered in mid-stream, but sometimes they are not discovered until years after the original decision was made and corrective action is problematic. Guidelines will be developed for handling and exposing mistakes.
(20) “Understandability” of City Code Provisions. Many parts of the City Code are not readily understandable to the average resident or business person, preventing proper adherence to the Code and precluding the notion of transparent government. A number of sections of the City Code evaluated with reading grade level software tested out at college graduate level and higher. Guidelines for drafting easily understood ordinances with clear intent statements will be a part of the City Transparency Policy.
(21) Defining the Harm from Disclosure. Both GRAMA and the Open Meetings Act recognize that in certain specific instances the public interest may actually be harmed by disclosure. This project will develop guidelines for assessing the harm to the City that could result from disclosure.
(22) “Free Thinking Zone.” Government entities, like other organizations, function most effectively when creative “outside-the-box” thinking is encouraged and supported. Unorthodox, controversial brainstorming may be discouraged if the proponent is concerned the idea will be subject to public scrutiny. A governmental entity’s need for a “free thinking zone” is reflected in various exceptions in the Open Meetings Act and GRAMA. At the same time, there may be a significant interest in knowing what alternatives were considered, but not pursued. This project will consider how to strike the balance between openness and the need for a free thinking zone in order to best promote the public interest.
(23) Employee Privacy. GRAMA recognizes the importance of employee privacy by providing exemptions from disclosure in specific circumstances. Similarly, the Open Meeting law permits a closed meeting to discuss the performance of an individual employee. At the same time, the performance of a city employee necessarily has some public interest implications. The project will develop guidelines to facilitate a fair balance between the public interest in employee performance and the personal privacy of employees.
(24) Security Measures. The Utah Code provides that a municipality’s records “regarding security measures designed for the protection of persons or property, public or private” are not subject to GRAMA. Similarly, federal laws prohibit disclosure of security information relating to facilities such as airports and the public water supply system. This project will recognize the legitimate public interest in the protection of security information.
(25) Legal Advice of the City Attorney’s Office. Legal advice is protected from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege, but as the “client,” the City is always free to waive that privilege. The City may decide the public interest in some subject matter outweighs the need for confidentiality in the communications between City officials and their lawyers.
(26) “Best Practices” and Review of Academic Literature. Much is being written about transparency and e-government in academic circles. Other municipalities around the country have introduced transparency initiatives. Best practices and academic literature will be reviewed for possible proposals.
(27) Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Transparency. The project will consider whether a citizens’ committee should be appointed to advise the City on transparency issues in the future.
(28) The Cost of Transparency. Transparency does not come free. The cost of making city documents more accessible undoubtedly will be significant, particularly when scanning older documents. The cost of providing greater transparency will need to be considered as part of this project.
(29) City Government 101. Providing increased access to information and city government processes is important, but information and participation are insufficient by themselves if citizens do not have the opportunity to understand how city government works. The transparency project will consider ways to better inform the citizenry on how City government works
(30) Fraud Prevention and Detection. Large organizations should have a fraud policy to guard against violation of the public trust. In order to promote consistent development of controls that will aid in the detection and prevention of fraud and abuse of public resources, Mayor Ralph Becker signed City Policy 3.02.12 FRAUD PREVENTION AND DETECTION which will go into effect January 6, 2009.
Salt Lake City recognizes that providing increased transparency will be an ongoing effort. Our plan is that after public input on the proposed scope of work has been received, a set of priorities will be established to guide development and implementation. Review and study will identify the key areas where the City can promote more effective governance by voluntarily providing greater openness, transparency, and inclusion than is currently required by state law or current City practice.
Greater transparency can have a transformational impact on how government serves those who live, work and invest in Salt Lake City. Clear procedures and accessible, easy-to-understand records and information will promote the accountability of our public servants as they make decisions and conduct the public’s business and will invite the participation of residents to collaborate in the strengthening and governance of our Capital City.