A Canadian think tank has embarked on an effort to satisfy the public’s growing thirst for information in a digital age where people demand instant information at their finger tips – and want a say in how they access it to boot.
David Seymour, director of the Local Government Project with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy recently launched the Interactive Local Government Project, which is an interactive web site that measures municipalities’ transparency and the effectiveness of the services they provide residents.
His think tank has been publishing annual reports since 2007 that measure the effectiveness of local governments, but this year Seymour decided that a web site would be more visually appealing, easier to access and a better way to amass and organize volumes of data.
To explain the site’s concept, Seymour employed an analogy.
"Think of it like buying a car. There is a ton of info available on different brands, how much they cost and which features are available," he explained, "The consumer choice is what drives competition and in the end makes the product better and more cost effective."
Because voters can’t shop for municipal services like they can a car, Seymour said his web site would offer a proxy that allows residents to compare their cities’ policies to others across the country.
"I know it’s not like someone can say ‘I want Calgary’s garbage collection, Montreal’s culture and recreation and Toronto’s roads,’ but it does offer a comparative market that allows voters to apply political pressure to improve the goods on offer," said Seymour.
He pointed out that the main difference between local government and business is that cities can do really badly and not go out of business.
"That may be part of the reason why there’s less creative destruction, even bad [cities] tend to survive," he said.
The theory behind ‘creative destruction‘ is that good ideas tend to edge out bad ones due to competition for limited resources.
While still in its infancy, the web site’s creator is thinking big.
"Think of Facebook three years ago," said Seymour, "We’re going to be developing new features as we evolve that will become truly interactive."
Currently, Seymour said, 99.5 per cent of the information has been uploaded by his organization. But, as the site becomes more popular, he hopes that will change. As more users start utilizing the site and adding information of their own, Seymour hopes to broaden the scope of the web site’s inquiry to include indicators, such as how often the snowplow cleans your street and how satisfied residents are with the recreational amenities on offer.
He said he envisions the site taking on a life of its own – like Wikipedia, where users upload information and challenge it if the data is flawed.
What makes Seymour so passionate about local government, is a fact that most people take for granted.
"If the federal government disappeared today, most people wouldn’t likely notice for some time, but if their municipal government disappeared, I suspect people would notice immediately," said Seymour.
The reality is that municipal governments provide essential services that are much closer to voters’ lives, despite the fact that local politics rarely garner the same level of attention as provincial and federal affairs.
Seymour gave the example of when, in 2008, he released his Local Government Project report he only received one or two calls from the press all week because Stephen Harper happened to prorogue Parliament at the same time.
Fort St. John Councillor Bruce Christensen said he thinks that the city has done a good job of being very open and transparent. He pointed to the fact that almost all of the staff-researched reports, agendas, tenders and budgets are available on the city’s website.
While he cautioned that the site could lead to dangerous comparisons that take data out of its context, he applauds Seymour’s efforts to make data available to residents in a centralized and accessible manner.
"I’ve always supported open and transparent government, because so often before I sat on council residents only saw the budget once it was passed," said Christensen, "Now it’s presented twice prior to council finalizing it – anyone can come voice their concerns."
Which – in line with what Seymour calls ‘creative destruction‘ – often brings new ideas to light that council had never considered commented Christensen.
"Anything that makes citizens better informed and council more informed is a good thing, because in reality it’s impossible to physically reach out to everyone, even in a small city like Fort St. John," he said.
Seymour agreed that it’s important that users don’t take information out of context and said that’s why he plans to continue updating software, so that users can have better tools to analyze and compare their local governments in an appropriate manner.
He may not edge out Facebook anytime soon as the most popular interactive, online web site, but the massive growth of the open data movement across North America reflects a significant appetite for the kind of statistics Seymour wants to offer.