In late June,  Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission (PEC) took a leadership role in building better government in Oakland by holding an impressive forum with some great speakers and kicking off a year-long effort to make city government more transparent and accessible for all citizens.  The working definition of transparency for this project includes open and accessible data, which promotes accountability of elected officials and government employees.

Whitney Barazoto, the Executive Director of the PED, told Oakland Local, “Open government is at the core of the PEC’s goal of ensuring openness, honesty, and integrity in City government.  Our Transparency Project taps the momentum from City staff and community members working together around projects that open up our government and focuses on community needs and participation.”

Barazoto explained that this work included Oakland’s open data platform and the Code for America fellowship program that is creating on-line tools for public records requests.

On the city website, the PEC pages describe the on-going Transparency Project this way:

“The Public Ethics Commission’s Transparency Project aims to assess Oakland City government’s current openness and transparency, facilitate improvements, and recommend actions to further the Commission’s goals of ensuring fairness, openness, honesty, and integrity in City government. The goal of the Transparency Project is to outline a vision for transparency and open government in Oakland.”

More public meetings will be held by the PEC to garner public input and plan actions to achieve this goal, including the upcoming meeting  in late July.  Between now and the July meeting, the PEC is conducting  a survey online to find out how open the City seems to Oaklanders.  You can participate by texting a letter grade, A to F,  to 510-470-7852.  As of early July, the City  is doing a little better than “C” with only about 40 votes submitted.

At the June meeting, a range of speakers addressed how to make local government more like the World Wide Web and better meet the expectations of Millennials, Digital Natives, and regular Oaklanders.

The line up of speakers included:

Keynote Speaker: Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media on Government as a Platform

Transparency 101Laurenellen McCann, Sunlight Foundation

The Problem with Transparency in California – Caroline Vance Bruister, California Forward

Innovations and EngagementAlissa Black, New America Foundation

Public Participation – Greg Greenway, Davenport Institute

Oakland InnovationsSteve Spiker, Nicole Neditch,from Open Oakland.

For those who missed the event, Tim O’Reilly’s slide deck has been published HERE.

The open meeting also tested innovations in access via two new technologies for citizen input – Vuact and Textizen. Vuact works with streaming video and allows viewers to react to comment on sections of the video. Texizen, which was a Code for America incubator project in 2012, allows participation via text-message surveys.

One motivation for encouraging broad citizen participation and on-line access to public meetings is the once-a-decade redistricting process. Mandated by the City Charter, every 10 years “the City of Oakland must review and revise City Council District boundaries to equalize each district’s population according to U.S. Census data. ” The Redistricting process will include Town Hall Meetings in July and September as well as online engagement opportunities for those unable to attend these meetings.

Steve Spiker, co-founder of Open Oakland, commented on the hearing and mixed  results with Textizen:

“About involvement- given the nature of Oakland meetings, it was great to have online questions responded to live. Not sure about the traffic via Textizen or Vuact. I did see some comments on the Vuact site, though. Not sure it was a wonderful solution, but I need to see the data first. In-room involvement was great for a hearing.”

Barazoto also noted problems with Textizen.  “Textizen was not as successful as we had hoped.  We received feedback that people were concerned about remaining anonymous… many thought their phone numbers/identities would be trackable and so therefore did not participate.”

Aspen Baker, the Chair of the PEC’s Subcommittee on Access to Public Records, set the goal of the meeting as initiating “…an authentic, solutions-oriented dialogue around transparency in Oakland – what we’re doing right, what needs work, and what innovations we might want for the City.”  Baker added, “The Commission initiated the Transparency Project this year to assess Oakland City government transparency, hear about innovations happening elsewhere, and outline a vision for how Oakland should move forward.”

Tim O’Reilly, the keynote speaker,  said that open government is like a web development platform and the same qualities need to be applied.  He used the development of mobile phones as an example. ” With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, we saw a revolution in ease-of-use. Multi-touch screens, beautiful interfaces. And yes, there’s a lesson here that we want to build interfaces to government that are simple, beautiful, and easy to use. ”

DSC00719Laurenellen McCann, the policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, who presented after Tim O’Reilly, appreciated the energy and commitment of the PEC and its community partners like Open Oakland.  She tweeted during the meeting: “I want to steal the energy in this room and bring it to #DC‘s city council.”

The hearing and presentations were recorded on KTOP and will be rebroadcast on the city channel.

Here is the  link to Vuact’s on-line version of the KTOP recording , which shows Tweets on the viewing timeline. The PEC event starts 11 minutes and 15 seconds in and runs to 3 hours and 50 minutes.

Below are some pictures from the event.  A full size slideshow, with images from the presentations,  is HERE:


3 Responses

  1. Max Allstadt

    While the turnout was impressive, and while the interest in transparency is encouraging, there was something very important missing from this event:

    There was little or no discussion of ethics enforcement of or consequences for politicians and technocrats who refuse to be transparent.

    Mayor Quan gave a speech at this event about transparency and access to government. She did not take questions from the audience. That action itself is a demonstration that Quan is not actually interested in transparency.

    There was also an awkward moment where the crowd learned that the Mayor had promised during the 2010 campaign to be transparent about who she meets with and to put her appointment schedule online. Mayor Quan broke that promise and has refused to offer substantive responses to public records requests for he schedule and appointments.

    Mayor Quan also, early in her term, cast a tiebreaking vote on the City Council for a budget that cut funding to the Ethics Commission and to KTOP (Oakland’s cable TV channel which records and webcasts video of public meetings.)

    We also have other politicians in Oakland, including Councilmember Desley Brooks, who frequently ignore public records requests and face no consequences from the Ethics Commission or anybody else.

    This event, launching a Government Transparency project, featured multiple moments where citizens brought up the lack of enforcement and lack of consequences. Almost every one of these complaints were met with the Ethics Commission giving absolutely no response.

    Until the Ethics Commission is willing to openly condemn bad practices by powerful people, this transparency project is a waste of time.

  2. Whitney Barazoto

    Thanks to Mr. Dyckoff and Oakland Local for summing up the Public Ethics Commission’s (PEC) Transparency Hearing on June 25. The hearing was designed to get us all thinking about what kind of transparency we want here in Oakland – before we take the next step of figuring out what policy, operational, technological or even legal changes to our Commission’s enforcement authority will drive us to the outcomes we want. In other words, this hearing was the first step in this journey: to hear what citizens want, get perspective from transparency innovators, and gain clarity on where Oakland currently sits along the transparency spectrum so that we can lay out a plan – complete with legislative changes necessary – for how to get there.

    Clearly, there is work to be done in all of these areas, and even more obvious: there is interest, momentum, and valuable resources uniting to move us forward.

    Meanwhile, the context for the PEC’s work is complex, with the Commission having to prioritize its agenda based on what is most effective given its current capacity. At the PEC’s retreat in March, the Commission placed government transparency at the top of the Commission’s priority list, along with increasing the Commission’s capacity via more staff and enforcement authority as well as through creative use of the Commission’s platform.

    For example, in April the Commission asked all City Councilmembers and other elected City officials to complete their state-required two-hour ethics training by May 2013 for posting on the Commission’s website. For the first time ever, our website shows a list of who is in compliance (all are compliant), and we will continue to monitor and post this list.

    On the staffing front, the Commission is encouraged by the recent addition of one full time staff with City Council’s approval of the 2013-14 Budget – not enough, but a great start.

    As for the Commission’s enforcement authority, the Commission will be meeting on July 24, 2013, at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall to explore options to expand the Commission’s authority to enforce open government and ethics laws. I hope you will join us, or share your thoughts remotely, for this important discussion about how our Commission can best ensure and protect the integrity of Oakland City government.

    (Written by Whitney Barazoto, Executive Director of the Public Ethics Commission. Connect with me:


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