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HOW GOVERNMENTS STAY TRANSPARENT
In America, government is supposed to work for the people it represents. In order to do that, it has to know what the people want, and the people have to know what the government is doing.
This openness, responsiveness and clarity of communications between a government and its people is generally referred to as 'transparency.'
"It's always nice when you have law line up with morality, which I feel transparency in government does," says Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz. "It's the right way to do business — the efficient, effective way to do business. Especially in government where, in everything we do, we are spending other people's money."
But transparency is somewhat fluid and means many different things to different people. With technology bringing more tools for communication to the table than ever before, transparency also has an ever-widening scope.
"I think what we looked at as transparency 15 years ago almost has no relevance to today," says Wichita City Manager Robert Layton. "It's a moving target — something that is dynamic, in my mind."
What was once only thought of as public meetings, open records and public forums has transformed into a near-constant flow of communication. Social media, streaming meetings and unfiltered databases are all the new norm in local government.
Layton says it wasn't long ago when Wichita City Council meetings would be limited to 20 to 25 people — and that's only for the controversial issues. This year, he says nearly 10,000 people gave input during the budget process through a budget simulator, social media town hall and two budget hearings with roughly 300 people in attendance.
"To me, that's open — that's transparent," Layton says. "Is that enough? I don't know."
The COVID-19 pandemic, social justice issues brought to bear by the Black Lives Matter movement and the economic downturn all make transparency more important now than ever. So how are our governments focused on putting the citizens first in decision making here in Wichita?
TRANSPARENCY DURING COVID
Layton says transparency is often a balancing act. With more people involved handling more information, decision processes can become cripplingly slow.
"It slows the process down, and I'm always sensitive to that," he says. "We get criticized about government moving slowly. That's the balance, though. In order to have the public trust in the decision-making process and to actually have some meaningful input, you do have to slow it down."
But things get even more complicated when dealing with a fast-moving and ever-evolving pandemic, which requires governments to be responsive to best practices and swift with decisions that impact virtually everyone.
"This is very tough right now," Stolz says. "And while all this is playing out, we owe the public explanations of what's going on — we owe them the best information, and we've also said from the beginning to hold on for this ride, because this changes weekly. We have to be flexible and dynamic, just because that's the way the virus is."
Since February, Sedgwick County health officials and elected leaders have wrestled with how to make decisions, taking into consideration policy decisions made at every level of government in the country, as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
After they start to get a grasp on what to do, next they have to figure out how to vie for — and divvy out — federal relief funds.
"In the state of Kansas and Sedgwick County, we try to make sure we get our share of the federal dollars," Stolz says. "If there's going to be some flow, how do we obtain those funds? And then once we obtain those, how do we allocate the expenditures of those? All of these things to this day [as of our interview on August 27] are still flowing, and they change routinely."
But COVID-19 brought more challenges to how government makes every decision. Without public, in-person meetings, elected officials had to create new ways for the public to stay informed while providing feedback and input.
"Some of it's a limitation in technology," Layton says. "If we're going to do things remotely through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or whatever, that's good for everybody who has digital access. But we have people in our community who don't have digital access and are going to either be left out of that process or they're going to have to find an alternative location. And with COVID, a lot of people aren't leaving their house. Or they aren't comfortable going to a location where they can access the internet."
Once everyone does have access, there's still the issue of ensuring everyone has a voice. If you've ever been in a Zoom meeting, it can be difficult to hear everyone and give them space to talk. Now, imagine that on a scale of a city council meeting or budget hearing.
Layton says the Council tried to use chat features, but they often end up with information overload.
"The Council probably had over a thousand emails on the budget process this year on two or three specific issues," he says. "On an average of an email every two or three minutes, that's almost too much information to process."
Layton says new technologies like artificial intelligence may help elected officials sift through content in the future, but, for now, it only serves to slow the process.
Since Brandon Whipple was elected as mayor, Layton says more issues have been coming to the Council bench for discussion earlier than under previous administrations. This gives Council — and the citizens they represent — more time to react to issues but, again, could serve to slow down decision making.
While slowing some issues down could be vitally important to ensure thorough public engagement and transparency, other issues require swift, decisive action.
TRANSPARENCY ABOUT RACE
If transparency is the term we use for clarity of communications between citizens and policy makers, there's perhaps no better example than protest.
"If you look at our history as a country, if you look at the history of the world, sometimes protest forces the issue," Stolz says. "And now we're straddling this line of peaceful protest versus violent protest — and clearly a peaceful protest ought to be the first tact, I think — but I've seen times in our history where violent protest becomes part of reality."
On the heels of a pandemic and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement ignited protests around the world and across the country, demanding equity in treatment by police and public policy.
In Wichita, these protests gave way to some official decisions, as well. Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple swiftly organized a council on diversity inclusion to discuss some of the ways policy could be made more equitable for black people in Wichita.
"You don't see this happen very often," Layton says. "You saw it in the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s and the Vietnam War issue in the '70s. ... This had the potential for systemic change."
But any time swift movements are made, limited voices are considered.
"The mayor appointed a committee really quickly," Layton says. "But there were other people out in the community who didn't feel they were being heard through that process."
Council member Brandon Johnson then formed a second group to come alongside the mayor's original group to help express concerns and potential reforms.
Since these groups were created, it's not clear if any policy change has occurred. But real change will likely be slower as more and more voices are brought to the table.
"You're going to see that over the next six months — at least in the next six months — we'll be working with both of those groups in continuing to try to address the issues that come out of that," Layton says. "We had the good fortune — or bad fortune — to see what happened in communities where they resisted; where they crossed their arms and did not engage their residents on issues that were coming out of this and that they felt were important. That's not who we are, and that's not who we want to be."
TRANSPARENCY IN DIRECTION
If transparency gives citizens a chance to see how well their leaders are representing them while giving leaders a direct line of communication to their citizens, who's really doing the leading?
"There's a fine line between leadership-driven initiatives and citizen-driven initiatives," Layton says. "It's not like we have town meetings where the city's yearly agenda is put together. People elect our council members and our mayor based on their platforms, what they say is important and what they hear the community says is important."
Each election cycle, everyday citizens get to decide the agenda for their city based on the people they elect into office. But it's important for officials to be transparent on direction to ensure they're in lockstep with the people they represent. How can we elect someone we believe will represent us if we don't know where they stand?
So in a world of relative chaos, where do we stand?
James Chung, the data analyst behind the Wichita Community Foundation's Focus Forward project and the namesake for this platform, says Wichita stands to lose more in the relative chaos of today than most other cities. It's vital that our elected officials acknowledge the stakes of our next moves and double down on initiatives that will move us forward despite the setbacks.
Layton says COVID-19 will likely initiate many trade-offs. While Wichita may progress in diversifying its economy — largely out of necessity because of the slow-down in aviation — it may lose ground on quality-of-life initiatives.
"When you have 55,000 people out of work, this is probably not the time to come forward with an extensive and expensive public initiative," Layton says. "I don't think we're going to be able to think big during this period of time. Now, others may disagree with me, but I just don't see us having a lot of community support for that."
Fortunately, we as a community can, in some ways, form our own agenda. What the people say matters is what will define our future, but only if they say it loud enough. While it's important to support those in our community who are most impacted by the pandemic — economically or health-wise — it's also important to bet big on our city's future. We've already lost ground compared with many of our peer cities. Slowing the pace of progress during this time could put us even further behind.
Fortunately, the tools we need to make community-based decisions are ever increasing. Layton says the city of Wichita has embraced the open data movement, partnering with the Sunlight Foundation to create an open data portal.
"It's really in what I would call its early stages," Layton says. "But there is data that you can pull off our system that's unfiltered, and you can manipulate it."
It's going to take more than just access to data for us to push our city forward. But with this access and a continued focus on transparency, we can form better policy, and make better-informed decisions about our city's future.