“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas famously said, referring to transparency as the strongest, most reliable weapon against government corruption and dishonesty.
Websites have become a steadfast tool for local governments to provide citizens with a wealth of easily navigable information while increasing public participation and minimizing corruption.
Chicago, however, has been slow to embrace this modern form of disinfectant. The city’s minimal ability to offer citizens transparency online is disconcerting. Important information is often hidden within the city’s hard-to-navigate websites, left inoperable by poor technology … or simply not provided.
Lag times and little data
One aspect of the city’s websites that serves as a symbol for Chicago’s complacent approach to transparency is the livestream of City Council meetings.
Despite most major (and even small) cities having an easy-to-watch video of government meetings, livestreams of Chicago’s monthly meetings are plagued with issues and server complications.
The livestream regularly fails to open on popular servers like Google Chrome and Firefox. When the livestream does rear its face, it often suffers from lag time and frequent freezing, proving to be nearly as unreliable as the Metra on your morning commute.
It’s 2017, and there are a multitude of reliable and free livestreaming options, such as YouTube or Facebook, for Chicago to take advantage of. There’s absolutely no excuse for the City of Chicago to be this technologically inept.
And this is not the only issue facing Chicago’s online transparency.
Unlike full council meetings, Chicago’s committee meetings are not livestreamed or recorded, and their transcripts are available to the public only through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which requires filling out and filing a form with City Council. FOIAs can often take weeks to fulfill, even in the least tangled of bureaucracies.
No citizen should have to go through the hassle of filing a FOIA to know what aldermen are saying about important legislation.
Some committees, such as the Committee on Housing and Real Estate, do not transcribe meetings at all, requiring citizens to physically attend meetings to know what is discussed.
Chicago is one of the only major cities in our great nation that does not provide video, or at least audio, of committee meetings online. Cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles satisfied this policy long ago.
Another problem with Chicago’s online transparency is that, of the information the city does provide, much of it is incredibly hard to find. Chicago runs three main portals of information—chicityclerk.com, data.cityofchicago.org and cityofchicago.org—along with different websites for offices such as the city treasurer and recorder of deeds.
This turf war over online information makes it very difficult for the public to find information unless they know exactly where the data are housed. For example, in order to see how an alderman voted on a certain bill, citizens need to know exactly which website and report provides this information.
Do you know if your alderman was one of 40 who voted to significantly raise the water utilities tax last year? In order to find this information, citizens must take the following steps:
- Visit the City Clerk’s website, chicityclerk.com.
- In the City Council Division drop box, click Journals and Reports.
- Under Journals and Reports, click Council Meeting Reports.
- You must now know the date on which the legislation was introduced—in this case, October 14, 2016.
- After finding the right date, download the “Attendance and Divided Roll Call Report.”
- In the report, scroll down to the page whose title reads “Chicago Water and Sewer Tax” and go to where the vote of each alderman is provided by ward.
This six-step process makes it nearly impossible to find this very basic, yet significant, piece of information.
Government transparency is possible
Watchdogs and concerned citizens looking for a good example of a sensible transparent government website can look to our nation’s capital. Washington, D.C., is a great template for how government websites should be designed.
Providing citizens with one or two navigable websites is a far better way of ensuring that information can be easily accessed, even without extensive knowledge of city proceedings and jurisdiction over data.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” For Chicagoans to be informed, city leaders need to prioritize easily navigable websites, clear information and online access to important meetings. Citizens will then have the ability to participate, hold city officials accountable and deter corruption.
Online transparency is an easy, effective step forward for good government at every level. We should ask ourselves: Why didn’t city officials make these changes long ago?
Chicago’s government has faced its fair share of transparency scandals in recent years. Adopting a stronger online presence is an easy way to enforce transparency and allow for a more open and honest government.