December 15, 2011

Transparency committee starts talking

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By Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com

Enthusiasm for making the General Assembly the most transparent branch of government echoed at the first meeting of the Joint Committee on Transparency and Open Government on Wednesday morning.

Aerial view of Annapolis

Aerial view of Annapolis

 

The committee, created by legislation in the last General Assembly session, exists to provide oversight and advice to make information on the state’s legislature more easily and readily available to anyone who is looking for it. Committee Co-Chairman Kumar Barve, majority leader of the House of Delegates, added that he also would like for the committee to make policy improvements that do not necessarily need legislative action.

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery County, was the primary sponsor of the legislation that led to the committee’s creation. She said that the committee can be a useful tool for advancing technology in state government, foster more information sharing between the legislature and executive branch, become more efficient, and improve the general public’s access to information.

“The work we can do can be deliberative and helpful in moving transparency forward,” she said.

Wednesday’s meeting was rather informal, with several members of the committee throwing out suggestions of ways to improve legislative transparency. Mizeur brought a two-page list, which included:

  • Studying all paywalls and fees for access to public records in state government, and determining if they are really necessary. Mizeur said that paywalls protecting public information are “the antithesis of transparency.”
  • Improving the General Assembly website to make it more user-friendly and functional. The current site, she said, “is an 8-track tape player in an iPhone universe.” She suggested setting the goal that the site be upgraded by the beginning of the 2013 legislative session.
  • Better utilizing social media – through Facebook, Twitter, podcasts and text messaging updates. Mizeur said that committees could really take advantage of these technologies both to connect with the public and communicate what they’re doing.
  • Using new technology to make information more accessible. Mizeur said this includes partnering with the executive branch to try to use more open-source technologies for record sharing – which means that more people would be able to take a close look at public records and the data they represent This also would include bringing raw StateStat data to a more useful format, where it could be incorporated into legislative policy documents.
  • Consulting with national transparency experts to improve the way the state does things.
  • Working with state universities that have computer technology programs to provide more innovation at a lower cost.

Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, said that everything the committee does should not just focus on transparency through computers or smartphones. There are people who do not have access to that technology, and there are still people who don’t use computers.

“We should not lose track of that diminishing part of the population,” Morhaim said.

Other ideas thrown out by committee members included:

  • Broadcasting hearings on television
  • Wiring the Joint Hearing Room so that hearings held there can be webcast.
  • Pulling together something like OpenCongress.org with Maryland state documents, making information available to people for their interpretation.
  • Looking at best practices at other state legislatures, and trying to adopt them.

J.H. Snider, transparency advocate and owner of iSolon.org, asked that the committee be true to its cause, having extremely transparent operations – like webcasting and accessible meetings records.

“My request of the committee is that you demonstrate the type of practices that you consider endorsing,” he said.

Committee members also said that at future hearings, they should take testimony from people from different transparency and public policy groups, the Department of Legislative Services, the Department of Information Technology, and members of the news media.

Morhaim said it is important to listen to what the media has to say, since they rely on the public information available online, and they will also be the source from which many people get their information about the General Assembly.

Barve said that the committee will meet again in January, after the legislative session has started, but before standing committees get tied up with bill hearings. Members were encouraged to bring concrete suggestions to start working on transparency.

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, said that the committee will develop a website between now and its next meeting. In the meantime, he said, members want to get public feedback about transparency in the state. He encouraged people to send their suggestions for transparency – or frustrations about the lack thereof – to committee staff member Lisa Simpson at lisa.simpson@mlis.state.md.us.