The power shift effect of open government

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The power shift effect of open government

The second CityCamp Colorado started off with Tom Downey and Stephanie O'Malley from the City of Denver setting the stage for the day’s theme: enhancing access to government. Held at the Jefferson County Administration and Courts Facility on October 28, 2011, more than 70 people gathered to participate, learn, and advance the open government movement.

Tom Downey, Director of Excise and Licensing for the city and county of Denver, is excited about the spread of open government. He said the beauty of a movement like CityCamp is that the organization is flat, decisions are made democratically, and things can get done and move forward.

Downey's day-to-day functions include working with a variety of licenses for the city and county of Denver, ranging from medical marijuana permits to liquor licenses and even managing parking zones—all of which run on an all-paper system. The office of Excise and Licensing has no online license system, not even for payments. Downey said it hurts the city when this office doesn't operate how consumers are used to doing business.

By moving to an online system where the license process is digitized and payments can be made online, it will make Denver better, faster, and more transparent. For licensees, it will make it easier to do business with the city and county. For concerned citizens, the process will be more open and transparent, allowing them to see who is applying for licenses, where they are in the process, and if there are any restrictions on those permits. They can do this now, but they have to physically go to the office and look at the paper copy, wasting time and money for both citizens and city employees.

"What are we doing to create an atmosphere of 'it's easy to do business with Denver?'" asked Downey. His office wants to put documents online and allow people to search information and applications, pay fines, and renew applications. This will create a more open government and a better business atmosphere. While simply going online isn't a huge advance towards open government, it is the first step to ensuring future efforts are more inline with open government initiatives.

While doing this will save money, the other savings come in a different form—it  takes burden off of staff. They can now shift priorities to work on strategic things instead of looking for paper copies of a license. Downey said it will make the information more accessible and shifts the power to a neighborhood base. 

Downey also spoke briefly about recent improvements to their notification process for permit applications. Previously, this process was hard to implement with the GIS system because the law required a five-block radius, which was not a natural formula for their system. Their GIS system could create a five-block circular radius, but Denver's complicated city block structure created additional issues and not all stakeholders were getting notifications as specified by their ordinance. His office worked with GIS to improve the system, and citizens affected are now getting the required notifications. Moving these applications online will create transparency and allow all citizens to review applications, not just those impacted or required by the law.

How can open government be advanced in Colorado? "It's all these little things that build into something that is tremendous," said Downey. As they start to web-enable the filing of briefs and improve the notification system, they make progress.

It's not a major innovation or process change that's going to one day make our government more open. It's building on individual improvements one at a time that shifts the power to the people.

Jason Hibbets is a Community Director at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and community publications.

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