Empowering the Chicago City Council for the Digital Age

By Seamus Kraft

Seamus Kraft is the executive director and co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation. Drop him a line at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @SeamusKraft.

Jun 29, 2016 | Economy, Smart Cities | 0 comments

I am sure you’re familiar with some of the huge challenges facing the great city of Chicago: public safety, education and a looming debt crisis threatening to spread across critical public services. Chicago needs leaders able to confront these problems head on and turn ideas into tangible policies. Unfortunately, the gears of the City Council, and hundreds of other legislatures, are gummed up with paper and a process badly in need of a overhaul for our Digital Age.

At The OpenGov Foundation, where we work to bridge the gap between citizens and government and power lawmaking for modern democracy, we saw an opportunity to build a complete open source operating system for a 21st century municipal legislature – replicable wherever policy is made. We developed a close partnership with Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza and her team, committing to work side-by-side on making the city more efficient and able to serve its residents better.

But when we started work, it wasn’t with software or data, we instead needed to understand the history, culture and systems that exist today. We wanted to walk a mile – or ten – in the shoes of the men and women who make the council run, from the most senior alderman to the newest administrative staffer. Not only do we believe that this is what good partners do, we believe that it would help surface the best possible place to launch this long-term legislative transformation. It’s building with not for.

When we first attended a City Council meeting, it was impossible to ignore the reams of paper schlepped throughout City Hall. We knew all policies start as digital documents when they are written on computers, but we didn’t realize how briefly they exist in that state. Printing, stamping, cover sheets, scanning, formatting and more. It’s only once we witness, record and understand this process that we realize the opportunities. Thousands and thousands of legislative documents follow this inefficient path every year and even small improvements will echo with huge time and cost savings.

The first legislative document type we’re tackling is the humble commemorative resolution, which officially recognize an outstanding achievement, like a victorious youth sports team, or significant milestone, like turning 100, in the lives of Chicagoans. These resolutions are the most straight-forward, least complex pieces of legislation drafted, voted upon by the city council and promulgated to the public. They are regularly created by all 50 aldermen, the Mayor and the City Clerk. Even better, resolutions contain most components included in more intricate kinds of Chicago policy documents – both process and data-wise – but in an easier fashion for a technologist to transform from paper to the digital world.

Transforming these documents into modern open data points offers incredible possibilities for increasing efficiency, effectiveness and citizen engagement throughout the legislative process. Hence, our emerging theory of how to change the culture of government in free societies: data innovation leads to platform innovation leads to policymaking process innovation leads to a government that spends less, serves better and does it all without paying the soul-crushing costs of a paper-based world.

You do not need to be a pundit or a political scientist to see and understand those costs. Alongside the City Clerk’s team, we examined the process of one, non-consequential type of Chicago legislation: commemorative resolutions. In going through the full process, commemorative resolutions go from digital to paper to digital to another type of paper with additional steps where humans manually enter data that once existed digitally. Think about that. Each change of state and re-entered data point means duplicated, wasted effort that happens with every resolution considered by the Council. Here is a simplified view of that process:

Chicago-City-Clerk-Commemorative-Resolution-Process-Visualization

Any change of state is an opportunity for typographic, data entry and other all-too-human errors. This costs precious time and is work that, by and large, simply does not have to happen in the year 2016. Just to move forward in the process, people have to walk paper documents to other parts of City Hall. This is the ultimate cost of our paper-based democracies: needlessly felled forests of trees, wasted human capital, duplicative effort and risks of error-riddled policymaking.

Imagine the possibilities that will open up for the Chicago City Council and the people it serves once this process is digital-first, streamlined and efficient?

Elected officials and staff will be able to spend more precious time helping people, not scanning and retyping and rescanning and worse. Citizens will be able to understand and engage with their government on their own time and on their own terms. Countless more voices will be heard in government.

That is government culture change, guaranteed.


“Data” icon by Wilson Joseph from the Noun Project.
“Document” and “Certificate” icon by Denis Klyuchnikov from the Noun Project.

Discussion

Leave your comment below, or reply to others.

Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org

Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Engaging Historically Marginalized Communities During COVID-19

Since historically marginalized communities are already being disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, I am frustrated to see these communities also negatively impacted by the lack of on-the-ground public engagement. While I realize the threat of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions make conducting on-the-ground public engagement challenging, I want to encourage fellow planners to think more creatively. I will admit that I struggled to think creatively when I first heard that Clackamas Community College (CCC) would continue having mostly online classes in Spring Term 2021. CCC has had mostly online classes since the end of Winter Term 2020 when COVID-19 first started impacting Oregon. CCC’s decision about Spring Term 2021 became more stressful when Clackamas County staff told me that public outreach for their new shuttles could not be delayed until next summer.

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

If Companies Want a Diverse Workforce, They Need to Pay Attention to Transportation

A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.

Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

How Affordable Green Housing Enhances Cities

Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.  

The Future of Cities

Mayors, planners, futurists, technologists, executives and advocates — hundreds of urban thought leaders publish on Meeting of the Minds. Sign up below to follow the future of cities.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This