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How Scottsdale plans to use complementary policies to open up city data

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 7:05
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

Four people standing in front of the city logo of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Scottsdale, Ariz., recently upped its open data efforts thanks to folks inside and outside government. From left to right: Brent Stockwell, Scottsdale city manager; Alyssa Doom, Sunlight open data project manager; Brad Hartig, Scottsdale CIO; Matt Raifman, GovEx senior implementation analyst.

We often speak singularly of an “open data policy,” but in practice, there may be multiple policies that take on proactive online publication of government information, working together to create a sturdier framework.

Scottsdale, Ariz. is a What Works City that is taking such an approach in crafting its open data reforms. Scottsdale is just one of many cities that understands how broad executive or legislative commitment to open data can be bolstered by more refined administrative policy mechanisms that lay out processes for implementation and accountability. Through our engagement with over 30 What Works Cities, we’ve recognized just how important added guidance may be to building out a sustainable open data program.

In a recommendation for Scottsdale City Council’s recently approved open data resolution, Scottsdale’s city manager and IT Department laid out plans to draft and implement a supplemental administrative regulation to provide greater structure for the city’s open data. With this plan, Scottsdale follows the lead of many other cities, including San Jose, Seattle, Boston, New York and San Francisco, which sought to provide additional guidance to those actors involved in their open data program implementation, for example, departmental data coordinators or city officials tasked with overseeing municipal open data programs.

High-level support

An open data resolution typically implies top-down support from city leaders signifying to departmental employees that the city hopes to achieve specific goals through the creation of an open data program. Common “whereas” clauses relate to using open data to make government operations more transparent, achieve goals laid out in city strategic plans, increase public participation and break down the silos in which department-level data is often stored.

Resolutions often lay out broad tasks that a city will undertake to further these goals. For example, last month the Scottsdale City Council resolved to establish an open data portal, make public information open by default, safeguard sensitive information, require a report and review process, and establish a process for developing open data governance.

From support to action: Administrative policies and implementation guides

While high-level support for specific open data goals is an important component of a sustainable program, Sunlight has found that some of the most effective programs tend to include supplementary guidance. This guidance can come in several different forms that pertain to different actors in the open data process. Here are some examples:

  • Montgomery County’s Open Data Implementation Plan: This plan lays the groundwork for the county’s open data program that was created by the Montgomery County Open Data Act. It spells out processes for inventorying, prioritizing and publishing the county’s datasets.
  • San Jose’s Open Data Coordinator Guidebook: The city’s guidebook details responsibilities for the city department’s Open Data Coordinators and includes guidance for conducting a departmental data inventory.
  • Seattle’s Open Data Playbook: This playbook was created to lead city departments’ appointed open data champions through the process of publishing data from start to finish, and uniquely includes tips for engaging stakeholders inside and outside government.
  • Tulsa’s Open Data Advisory Board Charter: The city’s Charter establishes an Open Data Advisory Board and defines board members’ roles and responsibilities, as well as the program reporting structure.

Scottsdale is currently in the process of developing an administrative regulation to complement the city’s existing resolution, which jump-started the city’s open data program by solidifying council support for promoting openness, transparency and accountability. The measure could spell out parts of the city’s resolution that are broadly defined, including details about the procedures the IT department will establish in order to maintain the city’s open data portal, the responsibilities of those who are to administer and enforce the open data program and existing policies related to the release of data in the city.

Getting from policy to approach

It is often the case that open data resolutions or executive orders contain few of Sunlight’s Open Data Policy Guidelines. But while these documents might not be the appropriate place to spell out technical standards for releasing data online or the responsibilities of those individuals tasked with overseeing the open data prioritization process, complementary administrative policies can fill in the gaps.

Having one central policy that makes a commitment to proactive release of open government data is a crucial step in the right direction, but while it is necessary, it is not sufficient. The truth is that open data is not about one policy, or even one policy supplemented by administrative rules and guidance — open data isn’t even just about simply getting the data out there a central online location — instead an open data is a broader approach to more open, participatory governing, and it is an approach that will likely need to be embodied throughout the whole municipal code and throughout a given city’s communications and practice. This might mean updates to records management to make the connection to open data, revisiting procurement processes, and including open government data strategies in municipal engagement plans or in comprehensive community plans.

Cities like Scottsdale and the others mentioned above are taking a first step at connecting the dots from a centralized “open data policy” to a broader open data framework that normalizes an expectation that public data is a public asset. Here’s to hoping that these cities and others continue progress in this direction.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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