A national online town hall meeting on healthcare reform and the expansion of USAspending.gov last week are examples, at the federal level, of great advances that are being made to increase government transparency and civic participation through the use of the Internet and new technology. The potential benefit of using these tools and practices on the local level is even greater.
Recently, the Eastern Pike Regional Police Department launched an impressive new Web site that will eventually host interactive crime mapping, a great resource to increase public safety. The Delaware Valley School Board debuted a feature called “BoardDocs” in May, which allows the public to download meeting agendas and other documents, some of which have previously been inaccessible. These are promising strides in the right direction in using technology for the public good.
Still, there is much room for improvement. Case in point: forget Twitter or Facebook, try finding the email address of your local elected official online, no less an annual budget, public meeting schedule or meeting minutes. These resources should be the rule, not the exception. But why stop there? An emergency text-message alert system (Wayne) and digital campaign finance reports (Allegheny) are two examples of other advances Pennsylvania counties have recently made.
According to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, Pike is in the minority of counties without a dedicated Information Technology director. Perhaps if such a position is created, the director can implement a long-term strategy, working with the municipalities, to ensure we make progress in this area.
Though resources will have to be allocated for this purpose, I think the real question is one of priority: whether greater transparency and participation should become goals at every level of our democracy. Once the infrastructure is established, maintenance costs would be relatively low. In the end, expenses incurred will be a worthwhile investment in a better-informed public and a more accountable government.
One of the take-home lessons from the annual Personal Democracy Forum I attended last week was this: we will stifle innovation if we expect or demand an infallible government; we must allow our public officials to try new things and take action, even if the result is not perfect. But progress must be made because, as time goes on, the status quo becomes increasingly unacceptable in this Information Age.
Check out these other County Web sites: