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Government of We

A recap of the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum and Open Government initiatives for South Orange

Every year after I attend the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City, I am left with an energized and inspired feeling about how government can be a positive force in people’s lives, and how technology can help play a role in making that happen. PDF (Not to be confused with Adobe .pdf files), is one of the largest gatherings of people discussing the intersection of technology and government/politics, and this year I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to present a keynote talk to this amazing audience of technologists, journalists, activists, programmers and, well, government nerds (which you can watch at personaldemocracy.com)

One of the biggest challenges that many people have noticed, and certainly something I’ve seen in South Orange, is the question of how to find ways to get people legitimately engaged in the governance process so that they feel like - and are - part of the progress happening in the community. Moving an election to inflate turnout numbers by a few points doesn’t accomplish the type of genuine government engagement that I’m talking about.

Rather, finding ways for people to not only be informed about, but actually participate in government is critical. And this doesn’t mean sitting in a committee or board meeting, it means finding what someone is passionate about and integrating that into a process which allows them to accomplish concrete goals in and for the community. 

One of the ideas presented, and often discussed at this forum is the idea of participatory budgeting. And although our Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee is one outlet to allow people to understand and participate in budgeting, that format isn’t going to work for everyone. 

This year in South Orange was the first year we made our budget available in a downloadable spreadsheet that members of the community can manipulate to see the impact of different changes. We are one of a few local governments that now make our budget information this accessible, so much so in fact that it garnered open government praise from the New Jersey ACLU. In the interest in continuously improving there are online tools, one for example that used sliders to help visualize the impact of budget changes, that could allow us to take that even a step further, and at the very least help promote more comprehensive understanding of the budget process for those who want to learn more, and see how different changes impact the budget and at the most, allow us easier access to our community’s ideas on financial priorities.

Too often in local government we hear the expression “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and as officials elected at-large, we need to understand our role as speaking for the entire community, not just one (loud) interest group or another. The internet can either make this better, or can make it worse. We see the worse on open-ended, anonymous and un-moderated local message board sites were a super-small fraction of people attempt to dictate what turns out to be a generally non-productive discourse. We can also see the promise of the internet, with web-based software that would allow community voting on things from budget priorities to downtown projects, to concert series, and more. This mantra is repeated every year at PDF: Platform is critical. 

More information, organized and collected in a constructive way, as to what a wider swath of our community wants will empower us to make better decisions and help remove the barrier that exists for people to share their opinion about town issues. Instead of only the few who come to a Board meeting or who happen to know an elected official, we could open the doors and basically create a 24/7/365 ongoing digital town hall. There are even participatory voting formats, for example one referred to as ‘Liquid Democracy’ that proposes an interesting continuous and recursive proxy-vote system that is meant to allow trusted experts to gain say and influence on issues, rather than those with fundraising ability or political connections, or perhaps even worse... the squeaky wheel.

One of the other panels, which included the White House Chief Technology Officer and Maryland’s Chief Innovation Officer, talked about how private companies interact with government through procurement. We discussed some of the limits imposed by government on small businesses by way of costly and lengthy RFP processes that reward larger companies that have the resources to keep track of and thoroughly respond to extremely detailed RFPs. There was some discussion around how to help small businesses and startups collaborate in their responses to RFPs, that by themselves they may not be able to properly address, but by joining with other smaller groups, would be able to do. Improved processes like this could potentially help encourage innovation and efficiency in the private sector, no longer putting small businesses at disadvantages for the billions spent in government contracts annually.

Last, access to public records, typically seen as the one of the cornerstones to transparent government was a topic that was presented on by a group of programmers who had, just days earlier in a lead-up event to the main conference, developed a web-based interface that allowed easier access to public documents for New York City’s government. By having a more user-friendly web-form, that directed requests to appropriate departments, showed online charts of how many requests were filed, pending, etc. and showed every request on the website ever made (allowing instant access by anyone to documents that have already been requested) helps reduce municipal expenses of providing these documents and improves the public’s access to them. Although in South Orange, we have been one of the most proactive municipal government with how much information is available to the public on our website, creating a web portal would lower the barrier of access to public information even further and help reduce the taxpayer expense with fulfilling redundant OPRA requests. I have already begun discussion about the feasibility of adopting this open-source software for use in South Orange.

This update is only a snippet and I suggest anyone interested in learning more stop by my office hours, contact me, read this full post on southorange.org, or check out personaldemocracy.com for all the videos.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Tom Morris June 28, 2012 at 08:53 PM
Maybe/maybe not moving the election dates to November to increase participation/inflate turnout numbers by a few points doesn’t accomplish the type of genuine government engagement that you are talking about. It will save the SO Village election costs.
Alex Torpey June 28, 2012 at 09:36 PM
To be clear, there is no guarantee of cost savings, only a potential. The savings, if realized, would be up to about 10-12k a year, an amount that I don't believe is significant enough to use the financial argument to decide an issue as important as this, especially if you consider other costs, for example the increased costs to candidates that I believe would happen if elections were in November.
Tom Morris June 29, 2012 at 02:14 AM
What are the increased costs to candidates that you believe would happen if elections were in November?
Tom Morris June 29, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Mahwah already moved their non-partisan municipal election from May and held their election in November 2011, resulting in a 41.6% turnout compared to a 16.2% turnout in the prior May 2011 election. http://www.northjersey.com/news/133556523_Mahwah_elects_businessman_to_municipality_s_top_office.html,Another 19 municipalities (out of 86 nonpartisan municipalities) have also agreed to move their May non-partisan Municipal election to November starting in either 2012 or 2013. (and over 85 percent of School Boards in NJ have also decided to move their non-partisan elections from April to November: http://www.njsba.org/sb_notes/20120222/november.html).
Alex Torpey June 29, 2012 at 03:45 PM
One statistic isn't particularly convincing, otherwise we could look at 2007 elections in South Orange and see that the turnout in May was about 33% higher than the turnout in November and right from there conclude we shouldn't move them. You've been involved with the Democratic Party for years, so I know you have a particular partisan perspective on this, and that's fine, but I just don't agree with partisanship in our village elections. I've asked for comprehensive data on this issue multiple times in Board meetings, and I'd suggest tuning into one of those, where I lay out over a dozen points as to why we shouldn't move the elections, but to be quite honest I'd prefer not to get into a back and forth with you Tom, considering the nature of how you have been acting towards me lately, I can't see anything productive coming from it. However, if anyone reading this post has questions about the elections or anything else mentioned I'm happy to answer them on Facebook, Twitter, at atorpey@southorange.org or during my office hours on Tuesday afternoons in Village Hall.
Tom Morris July 01, 2012 at 02:12 AM
Unfortunately, I do not have the available time to review the Board of Trustee meetings. It seems to me that you are not willing to answer my question. Who did you address multiple times for the comprehensive data at Board of Trustee meetings? Who did you expect to obtain this information for you, the Village Administrator? Personally, I have been involved and proud to be involved/active with the Essex County Democratic Party for years( actually longer than you have been alive), I definitely have a partisan political perspective. I absolutely encourage partisanship in SO Village elections. The vast majority of political elections world-wide are partisan. Why do you continue to decline to defend your position and avoid any constructive criticism? I think our discussion is an example of participatory democracy? Even though I did not vote for you, Alex, I still expect more of the SO Village President.

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