John Klossner

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A government that's open about a closed process

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I recently witnessed an interesting experience involving my small Maine town and open government. For the third time in the past five years we find ourself in need of a town manager, who is chosen by the elected town council, who make their decision after interviewing all the applicants. In meeting with candidates for the current opening, our council had secret -- excuse me, "unpublic," (their term) -- interviews. In defending this, the head of the council played the media card -- he claimed that the last time they had interviewed candidates for the town manager's position, the interviewees had been identified and listed in a local newspaper report. This caused problems for some of the candidates with their current employers, who didn't know their employees were looking at other openings. The council head has been very open in defending the secret arguing that he was "defending the candidates from harassment."

Now this isn't really an open government issue. It's actually an illegal action. I'm writing about it to a) share my appreciation of the irony of my local government being open about not being open, and b) point out that I'm pretty sure my town council would proclaim itself and our town as practitioners of an "open" government.*

This brings me to one of my concerns about open government or, more specifically, the Open Government Initiative. That is, the name. With all the latest Web 2.0 technology at hand and a community of intelligent and talented people champing at the bit to participate, couldn't they have come up with a better name than the Open Government Initiative? I'm pretty sure most governments in history have considered themselves "open." And while our current open government refers to a perfect storm of available technologies, regulations, and eager participants, wouldn't one of the first steps -- a beta test, if nothing else -- have been to use those technologies to get the community to come up with a more descriptive and vibrant name than the "Open Government Initiative?"

History is full of states that referred to themselves as "open," but didn't quite pass the smell test. I'm not accusing our government of going North Korea on us, but by calling yourself "open," aren't you inviting cynicism and challenges? By going bland -- and let's face it, they could not have gotten more bland than "Open Government Initiative" -- the leaders of said initiative haven't given me reason to think of it as a cutting-edge, creative process. If, after using all the social conversations and technologies, you come up with vanilla ice cream you're not exactly giving me hope for raspberry fudge swirl in the near future, if you know what I mean.

I've looked through the site. They have categories and links for every conceivable issue of importance to interested citizens. Would it be so hard to add a link to a wiki tool allowing motivated parties to propose, discuss and choose an improved name for the Open Government Initiative? (And, in the highly likely event that this has already occurred and I missed the naming opportunities, was this really the best name? I can't help but feel that the fix was in.) I would start the process by proposing the following possibilities:

- WiiFed

- The We Need More Things for the Interns to do Site

- Ideas 'R' You

*Of course, in an actual open government process my local government would have used available technologies to allow the candidates to introduce themselves to the community and allow the community to give input into the interviewing and selection. Instead, there was a bunch of finger-wagging and harrumphing at a town meeting that Frank Capra would have appreciated. No charges were pressed, and we moved on to the all-important discussion of what to do with the leftover rocks from a local bridge improvement project.

John Klossner open government

Posted by John Klossner on Jan 20, 2011 at 12:19 PM


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Reader comments

Wed, Jan 26, 2011 John Klossner maine

Excuse me, I didn't clarify that. Maine does have provisions for executive sessions. Our council did not follow those steps, and claimed that they needed to conduct private, unannounced meetings, because citizens had noted and publicized who was coming in and out of the building in past interviews. (I would contend this is part of public service, and candidates should be prepared for such attention, no matter the size of the community.) There was much attention and discussion of these secret meetings in local media, but no one ever took the steps to press charges against the council.

Fri, Jan 21, 2011

I was most struck by your "illegal action" example. Does Maine law not have provisions for governing bodies to have excutive (closed) sessions to address specific categories of issues (including employee issues) that require some degree of confidentiality?

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