When I joined Code for America (CfA), the first question my family and friends asked me was an obvious one: “Do you even code?” The answer is no. I studied political theory and public policy, not Python or Javascript. Everyone wanted to know what I would do while the rest of the fellows were “coding for America.”

Code for America recognizes it takes more than a flashy new web application for the City of Oakland to transform the way it processes and responds to public records requests.  The organization makes a concerted effort to pull together teams of fellows from a variety of professional backgrounds, including individuals who understand how city governments function and the challenges they face.

The City of Oakland appears to understand it cannot rely on one web application to reach its goals of increasing citizen engagement and becoming more transparent.  City employees are committed to examining how internal policy and procedures could be improved as much as they are interested in working with Code for America on the development of a new web application.

Before we began our fellowship, the City formed an internal working group on public records requests. Representatives from the offices of the City Clerk, City Administrator, and Public Ethics Commission meet bi-weekly to discuss improving the management of public records requests, updating the information distributed to the public on the California Public Records Act (PRA) and Oakland’s Sunshine Ordinance, and the type of training that should be available to city staff on this topic.

The working group invited the us to attend and participate in their meetings once they learned we decided to build a new public records request management system and portal for the public. The first item on the agenda was updating the administrative instructions. The administrative instructions reinforces what is stated in the Sunshine Ordinance and PRA and sets expectations for city employees. It describes how many days the City has to respond to a request, the documents that cannot be distributed to the public, and when confidential information may be removed from a record.

I found reviewing the administrative instructions to be a fascinating process.  I enjoyed observing how our laws are interpreted and applied to the day-to-day work of city staff members. The process allowed the working group to address several key questions: How do you honor the differences of each city department while trying to impose a uniform set of standards and procedures? Should one person in each be responsible for fulfilling all requests or should it be a shared responsibility? How should city employees treat furlough days? Who determines whether an extension is needed, allowing city employees more time if they need to collect a large number of records?

Another issue the public records working group will continue to grapple with is the age of the Sunshine Ordinance. Our definitions of transparency have changed since the ordinance was adopted in 1997. It is not enough to simply allow any individual to walk into City Hall and inspect a record. The City must become more proactive about releasing data and distributing information online. This should be reflected in its internal policies and reinforced by training programs so each city employee knows what is expected of them.

The success of Code for America and the City of Oakland’s initiative will depend on fostering an environment that supports the level of transparency and collaboration this new web application will create. The city administration must signal to its employees these principles through the administrative instructions and other directives to city staff. Fortunately, the City appears to be just as committed to updating its internal policies and procedures through the public records working group as it is to introducing new technology to its employees and the general public.

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