Cary Africk: Montclair Government Should Be Leader in Transparency

While we often lament the lack of progress in running a more efficient and more open government, we often overlook the work that is being done at the State level.

Some very important, and progressive, things are taking place.

These will all impact Montclair, in a very positive way (at least from my point of view).

One of the topics being spoken in Montclair is the concern for transparency. People have written about the incomplete Agendas that are missing attachments, the rule that residents can only speak before items are discussed at Council meetings, and so on.

The State has initiatives in at least three areas that should reassure residents (provided Montclair decides to cooperate with the State).

These areas include User Friendly Budgets, Best Practices, and expansion of the Open Public Meetings Act.

I would highly recommend that all take a look at what the state is proposing in the area of User Friendly Budgets. Montclair should be a leader, not in last place on this issue.

There is both a PDF document explaining the logic, and an Excel spreadsheet.

I’m not sure how many people get excited about these things, but I do and know of at least a dozen other people who also do. Please take a look:

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  1. data is my business and my life.

    first, excel spreadsheets are great, but are only as good as the data entered and the person interpreting said data.

    secondly, it would be more useful to add demographic data to the sheets like avg. age, avg. income, rent vs. own, avg. home value(land & improvements), etc.

    third, it would be beneficial to have geography data as well, like town size, residential vs. commercial land/sqftage, available property, open space, etc.

    fourth, report needs to be more detailed when describing “collective bargaining contracts”(total employees, employee designation(captain, chief, etc.)

    by adding these enhancements to the documents(must be in standard form though) it would be very easy to write macro programs to find towns that preform more efficiently in specific budgetary categories. This would benefit other towns with similar demographics to evaluate what those departments/town services are doing to keep cost/expenses low.

    even better would be to use the google maps API to evaluate the opportunities for shared services.


  2. In Bloomfield they prepare the budget in a spreadsheet- then they print it out- then they scan it- then they post it on the town website. Since they have scanned the data it is now a graphic and can’t be searched. One wanders why they do it this way – TRANSPARENCY – there is no transparency- they can say- see we gave you the data – so sorry that you have to go through it a line at a time and create your own spreadsheet to make it useable.

    So sorry for you!

  3. “first, excel spreadsheets are great, but are only as good as the data entered and the person interpreting said data.”

    Of course. But making the data available to a lot of people means making it available to at least some people that can do a decent job with it. More, making the data widely available encourages – enables – collaborative analysis. In other words, people can talk intelligently about what they’re doing with the data, letting people leverage off the work of others and going even further.

    But Pat is correct in that the trend appears to be to render the data less, rather than more, useful. I once offered to take raw financial data from the school district in any digital form – as long as the form was explained to me – and I’d do the work of converting it to a spreadsheet. My offer was turned down.

    Anything that requires towns etc. to provide their information in “live” formats is an improvement.


  4. Cary,
    Just to be clear, are you also including Montclair Schools when you mention better transparency from Montclair government? Do the initiatives you reference apply equally to school districts?

  5. Andrew,

    While the state is on a commendable track, i.e. more information, the Municipalities oppose any expansion. They say it’s too much work.

    They also complain about the hundreds of OPRA (Open Public Records Act) requests they get for information. They say it’s too much work.

    If you make all information public, there will be dramatically fewer OPRA requests.

    If you make all information public, the public will look at the information and start saying things like:

    How could you have POSSIBLY spent so much money on so and so?

    Your numbers don’t add up

    etc, etc.

    Then there’s howlers like this:

    The State Best Practices Checklist. Montclair got a great score. They haven’t turned over the actual document submitted to the state. But …..

    You’d think the checklist would work like this:

    A Best Practice is listed. The Town checks the “yes, we do this,” or “no we don’t do this.” A score is calculated.

    But the Town’s have succeeded in making a change. In addition to “yes, we do this,” you can also answer “we’re trying,” or “it’s impossible for us to do this.” Incredibly, “we’re trying,” and “it’s impossible,” also count as “yes.”

  6. Pat G., Cary, et al: Agreed, if the data isn’t “machine readable”, it isn’t really transparent. PDFs and image files are bad news. XML/RSS feeds, read-only database connections, open APIs, and web service frameworks are where it’s at. Sure, it SEEMS like a pipe dream for most municipal governments, but when you really look at it, the cost to implement these technologies is EXTREMELY minimal, especially when compared to the cost savings they will allow, due to the very efficient processes they promote.

    I’m in.

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