A deeper level of transparency

Rays Of Sun Through Smoke In The Trees

Welcome to the Branch Out Blog. We’re very excited about this new project, and have big plans for it. We hope that this blog will be among the first of many like it from cities and towns across the country.

In this first post, we simply want to explain our intentions.

Led in equal parts by improvements in technology and a desire for openness, there has been a push in recent years for government at all levels to be more transparent. We believe that, while this is certainly a positive development, there is an aspect of transparency that this movement is neglecting. 

Take the Texas Comptroller’s Leadership Circle program as an example. This is a great program that has encouraged cities to provide better access to financial information. But a quick look at its FAQ page reveals that recognition in the program requires little more than posting budget documents and check register reports on city web sites. While any information is better than nothing, this is transparency at an infancy stage.*

Other programs like data.gov are taking this a step further by providing convenient access to raw data that can be searched, filtered, visualized, and downloaded. Data in this format can be more easily analyzed by curious citizens. Some cities (like Austin, New York, San Francisco, and others) provide platforms that let businesses and “civic hackers” provide additional services to citizens on their behalf. Apps like Crime in Chicago and Yelp’s restaurant inspection integration provide new services to residents and visitors that cities often lack the time, resources, and ingenuity to create on their own.

Providing the public with raw data and the tools to use it is a far more advanced level of transparency, but there is a tendency to focus on the surface level work of city government: the number of stray animals picked up, how many robberies took place, how many potholes were patched, etc. It doesn’t address the more fundamental questions, the answers to which would help people actually understand not only what we do, but why we do it.

Being fully transparent means providing a combination of information and context. While we aren’t the first city to run a blog, we want to be among the first that uses this kind of platform for something more than a PR tool. Most cities that run blogs simply post press releases or talk about the goings-on about town. It’s no surprise, then, that they don’t carry much in the way of readership.

Our goal with this blog is to engage in a new form of transparency by talking openly and honestly about what we’re doing in COHO and, more importantly, why we do things the way we do. In the interest of good governance, we think cities should be more open about the thought process behind their actions. It’s good for all stakeholders to better understand their local government’s decision making process.

It’s not that we think we do things better than everyone else, although of course that’s our goal. Hudson Oaks has some genuinely unique challenges and opportunities that cause staff to approach city government from a different perspective. We want to share our experience with the world to hold ourselves accountable, inform our stakeholders, and encourage other cities to talk openly about these topics as well.

Our audience is anyone that wants to listen.

  • We want our residents to read so that they can be more engaged in city affairs;
  • We want our businesses to read because if they know what drives our decision making, it can help them plan better for their future needs;
  • We want non-residents to read because we want them to support Hudson Oaks, whether by moving here or shopping here; and
  • We want other city officials (whether administrative or political) to be inspired to have the same types of discussions with their stakeholders.

You can expect to see honest discussion, in plain and conversational language, of topics that most government officials don’t like to discuss. Sure they’ll talk about these things at a conference roundtable where no outsiders are paying attention. But the fishbowl in which we operate tends to keep city officials from speaking openly about their decision making process. That’s unfortunate, and we want to show that it’s also unnecessary. We’ve found that while our residents may not always agree with the City’s decisions, they respect the willingness of staff and the City Council to discuss those decisions openly.

This will not be a platform to whitewash mistakes or try to make ourselves look good. We’re interested in improving the relationship we have with our residents and businesses and contributing to the improvement of city governance.

We approach our operations with the mentality of a startup. We believe that solving a problem involves an iterative process of small decisions, and that it can be valuable to fail early and fail often until you find the right solution. We’ll document our thoughts and talk about why we made the choices we did. When we make a mistake – and we will – we’ll own up to it, and explain why it happened and how we’ll do better next time.

Our hope is that this open dialogue will inspire other cities to do the same. The free exchange of ideas, opinions, challenges, and solutions can only improve the quality of city management.

This entry notwithstanding, we will post under our own names. Each author will bring his or her own unique perspective to the discussion.

We welcome your feedback, and encourage you to send a public response in an open forum, whether that’s on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, your own blog, or any other venue that you prefer.  Just be sure to send us a tweet (@branchoutcoho) or ping/trackback to the post you’re responding to so we can read what you have to say.

Again, we’re very excited about this project, and we hope you are too!

* In the interest of complete openness, we’ll be the first to admit that from a data perspective, COHO is still in the infancy stage. Right now, we post agendas and budget documents on our web site, but not much else. We are currently researching options for providing better access to our data, and hope to have some new services to announce in the near future.

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About

The Branch Out Blog is the official blog of the City of Hudson Oaks. In the interest of transparency and better governance, we talk openly and earnestly about what we're doing, why we're doing it, and other issues related to local government, specifically in the state of Texas.