Katherine Wagner.

Katherine Wagner.

Citizen’s Ink: Technology improves transparency at city hall

Government portal provides internal business efficiencies and leverages data.

How can infographics of the most popular dog names and breeds in Maple Ridge help keep city council accountable to the public?

Indirectly, they contribute by drawing traffic to the city’s relatively new Open Government Portal.

Maple Ridge council is to be commended for making significant decisions toward increasing their own transparency and accountability.

For starters, soon after the current council took office in 2014, it implemented live-streaming and public archiving of council meetings, workshops, and public hearings. The technology had been available for years.

When it comes to transparency, it’s easy to find examples of governments obscuring their decision-making processes. At the provincial level, this includes the ridiculous foot-dragging around bringing ride-sharing to B.C., and the backroom deal to form the minority NDP-Green government that ironically resulted in the current push for of a new voting system – one with the potential to enshrine post-election backroom deal-making.

The previous Liberal government also had issues with transparency and accountability, as highlighted by the recent report on money-laundering in B.C. casinos.

It can be challenging for citizens to hold governments accountable between elections, and at the municipal level many decisions, such as developments and capital projects, are made on a continuum across multiple councils. There is also a sheer volume of information that, while technically public, can be difficult to access and sift through.

In early 2015, Maple Ridge council approved the Mayor’s Open Government Task Force, which included the formation of an 11-member Citizens’ Representatives Working Group. It asked me to chair it. Though happy to volunteer, I wasn’t particularly optimistic about meaningful change. The bookshelves of all levels of government are stacked with reports and recommendations. Most of them gather dust.

The Citizen’s Group final report included 58 recommendations. The Open Government Portal, launched in October 2017, makes significant progress on several.

We heard from residents frustrated by the complexity of accessing information about development. Some wanted a lot of information, while others only sought limited, specific information. The Land Development Application Viewer is designed to tell the story of a development from beginning to end with the option to pick and choose which parts of the story to view. The default filter is set to active, but completed or approved, and cancelled or denied applications, can also be searched.

The city provides developers with a QR code to include on their mandatory site signage. A free QR Code Reader app on a smart phone links to the specific Land Development Application with related details, documents and council videos.

Another popular new app is the Secondary Suite Inquiry. Simply input a Maple Ridge address to determine if there is a legally-registered secondary suite.

I was curious about costs, given increasing demands on taxpayer wallets from all levels of governments, but it seems the Open Government Portal is not costing the public more overall.

According to the City of Maple Ridge’s chief information officer, Christina Crabtree, the portal provides internal business efficiencies and leverages data it was already collecting. For example, previously when a citizen called the city looking for a property tax estimate, they were put through to the tax department, which did the calculation—about a 10-minute process repeated several times a day.

With the new Property Tax Estimator , any city staff member can estimate on behalf of a property owner, or there is the option to do it themselves online.

The next big step is to put budget data online and link it with council decisions. This would be particularly useful for capital projects with a long decision-making history such as the Leisure Centre renovation.

Use of the site is steadily, but slowly, increasing, but relatively few citizens are aware of it. The portal can be installed on your phone with the “Your Maple Ridge” app (available for both android and Apple iOS). It includes the map-based WHAM (What’s Happening Around Me?) and Service Request for reporting city-related problems and concerns. City data sets are also available license-free to app developers.

Browsing the portal provides an impressive overview of the breadth of City of Maple Ridge services and council responsibilities.

With a municipal election coming up Oct. 20, voters and potential candidates should explore the portal to get a sense of the scope of council responsibilities beyond the hot-button issues of the day.

Perhaps the Open Government Portal will help provide a more nuanced overview of how decisions came to be made over time and different councils.

In May, Maple Ridge won a 2018 CAMA Willis Award for Innovation for the Open Government Portal. The Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators wrote: “The true innovation of the platform lives in the values on which it was built: increasing community engagement, promoting transparency, and gaining business value from data.”

The portal is a work-in-progress that continues to improve. Public feedback and suggestions are actively sought.

Still curious about the most popular dog breed and name in Maple Ridge? Based on data from 7,657 licensed local pooches, the top choices are Labrador retriever (898) and Bella (105), respectively.

Katherine Wagner is a member of the

Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a

former school trustee and member of

Golden Ears Writers.

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