Technology and Open Government: Maximizing Participation and Transparency
Sometimes it seems like the law will never keep pace with technology. For example, the Washington State Legislature adopted the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in 1971. At that time, there were no personal computers or smart phones and the word “Internet” was not in use. If a person wanted to attend a public meeting, there was one way to do it: attend in person.
The OPMA is over 50 years old, but it has not been comprehensively updated to address the revolutionary advancements in computer technology that have occurred in the meantime. There have been a few specific updates, such as RCW 42.30.077 which requires most agencies make regular meeting agendas available online, but in general, the OPMA continues to emphasize in-person attendance and does not address other types of public participation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the important role that technology can play in facilitating participation in public meetings. As of this writing, Emergency Proclamation 20-28.15 remains in effect and requires agencies to meet remotely, provided that an agency has the option of providing an in-person component if it meets certain requirements, including providing remote meeting elements.
However, when the emergency proclamation is terminated most agencies will likely revert back to the OPMA in-person public meeting requirements (unless the legislature amends the OPMA in the interim). In the meantime, some agencies have been proactive about providing constituents with participation options and increasing transparency in government. This blog will look at a few examples of what agencies are doing in this regard.
One Size Does Not Fit All
The best strategy for encouraging public participation will vary based on a number of factors, including:
- Access to Wireless and Broadband Infrastructure. Larger cities with dense population generally have access to wireless and broadband. Rural counties and special purpose districts may not, and lack of connectivity may be a barrier to public participation and efforts to promote transparency. The Washington State Broadband Office has information on resources for improving broadband access and Congress included broadband in its Building a Better America legislation.
- Agency Communications Tools. Some agencies have robust communications strategies that encompass television, websites, social media, press releases, and other sophisticated forms of technology while others may not. MRSC’s Community Engagement Resources webpage has more information.
- Agency Geographical Size. When an agency covers a large geographical area, it may be harder for members of the public to travel to a physical meeting location, which may make alternative forms of participation more desirable. Offering remote participation options also benefits individuals with scheduling or mobility challenges.
- Agency Meeting Times and Frequency. Some agencies meet during traditional daytime business hours and others do so in the evenings. An agency should consider when, where, and how often it meets and the impact that has on the ability of members of the public to attend.
- Agency Size and Budget. Larger agencies may have an information technology (IT) department or at least a full-time IT professional. But even for smaller agencies, there are cost-effective ways to deploy technology that meets constituent needs.
The following examples are intended to assist agencies with identifying where they can make changes that facilitate participation in government and public meetings. Each agency has unique needs, but these case-studies are intended to provide ideas and spur dialog.
The Snohomish County Council makes a lot of information available to the public on its website. The council makes videos, agendas, and minutes of past meetings available on its meetings archives going back to 2016. Meeting links, agendas, and minutes for the current month are available on the council’s meeting calendar. The county maintains a webpage to help county residents lookup elected officials to find out who represents them at the federal, state, and local level, including special purpose districts. The county also makes the voting records for each council position available dating back to 2004.
City of Lakewood
The Lakewood City Council Goals for 2021-24 include a transparency section that emphasizes enhancement of communications and engagement with residents, businesses, and community stakeholders about city issues, projects, and services. It has a communications webpage in which members of the public can receive information and communicate with the city in a number of formats, including various types of social media, email newsletters, and print publications. It also maintains event and meeting calendars which can be downloaded or imported to a user’s calendar application. City council meetings can be watched live or after the fact on the city’s YouTube channel and public comment is received over Zoom or by telephone. Agenda packets are available on the city’s website.
North Shore Fire Department (NSFD)
Among Washington special purpose districts, NSFD is an early-adopter of transparency and participation measures. Its Board Meetings webpage provides links to upcoming meetings and stores audio recordings of past meetings for the applicable six-year retention period. Archived meetings include meeting agendas and links to documents that were considered at a particular meeting. Members of the public can sign up for advance notice of meetings, including meeting materials. NSFD holds its meetings on Zoom and has seen a large increase in public participation since doing so.
NSFD also provides each commissioner with a notebook computer, which has simplified records retention and minimized technical difficulties during remote meetings since the commissioners use the same technology and software. NSFD schedules a public comment period at the beginning of each meeting and provide for ‘advisory non-voting members’ to participate as an additional way of increasing public participation.
Local governments should not wait until open government statutes are amended to adopt measures that promote public participation. The Public Records Act and the OPMA impose minimum requirements, but many local governments that have chosen to go further find that transparency measures are often not expensive, result in cost-savings over time, and improve relations with the public.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.