A new tool delivers better government accountability - Metropolitan Planning Council

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A new tool delivers better government accountability

A look at City Bureau’s “Documenters” project

Pat Nabong

One of my jobs at MPC is to keep track of government activity in Chicago and in the Statehouse. There’s a lot to keep track of: ordinances, commissions, committees, councils, and Boards. I’m excited about a new tool from City Bureau—a local independent news outlet sometimes called “Chicago’s J-School of the Streets”—that not only makes my job a little easier, but increases the transparency of our local democracy.

The City doesn’t currently record or livestream committee meetings.

City Bureau’s Documenters.org is a project “informing, engaging, and equipping a new generation of news gatherers.”[1] The basic idea is this: City Bureau will pay and train local residents to cover Chicago’s public meetings, take detailed notes, and then upload those notes to Documenters’ website. Those notes become records of legislative activity available to anyone with web access.

This new approach toward documenting public meetings solves a couple of big problems for local government transparency. First, Documenters produce detailed records. Let’s say you knew about the most recent Committee on Finance meeting, but you missed it due to work, or because you couldn’t get childcare, or because you had no way to get there. How would you find out what happened? The Journal of the Proceedings, the official record of City Council activity, gives you the barest facts like whether a measure was voted up or down. But there’s not much information about the debate that might have occurred. And media outlets, strained by staffing cuts, don’t have the resources to report on every meeting[2]. The City doesn’t currently record or livestream committee meetings, so that’s not an option, either. Documenters.org has you covered, providing a rundown of not only the ordinances passed, but also debate among elected officials and community members.

Documenters makes it easier to figure out what meetings are going on by aggregating disparate calendars.

Second, Documenters makes it easier to figure out what meetings are going on by aggregating disparate calendars (hooray for me!). Some local government activity, like committee meetings and council meetings, are centrally located on the City Clerk’s online hub. There’s lots, though, that’s not on that hub. For example, the Chicago Plan Commission—a public body with tremendous advisory power over the designation of TIF districts—has a separate webpage on the City website, with its own calendar. Same with the Community Development Commission, the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, and Chicago Transit Authority.

Now that Documenters aggregates all these meetings into one website, you can go to Documenters.org, and all those meetings and more are at your fingertips.

City Bureau co-founder, Andrea Hart, explains how this process can create government accountability. “We’ve had [Documenters] say ‘I was the only person there... and they see me come often now, and they perk up a little more because I’m there watching them and asking questions if I need to.” Documenters might provide an antidote to some ailments of contemporary local democracies. My colleague Adam Slade touched on one example of this phenomenon, where a decrease in local journalism is correlated with an uptick in municipal financing costs. Declining local media coverage is also correlated with decreased voter information and turnout. Documenters.org fills the gaps in local media coverage and might prevent some of those effects.

Hart sees the next step in transparency as getting community leaders involved in the Documenters process. “We’re really interested in how this information can get directly back into the hands of community folks… How do we draw this connection to people doing organizing or other work in the neighborhood, people who may not be journalists, but who might really benefit from this information?”

I know that I, for one, have already benefitted from this information: in my role at MPC, I have already used Documenters.org to track upcoming city council meetings and look up information on past meetings. I’m excited to see how this tool evolves to bring more voices to Chicago journalism and more information to Chicago’s residents.

[1] (Documenters.org, 2019)

[2] The Daily Line does a great job of covering City Council and Committee meetings, but they are a subscription service to which not everyone has access.

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