How We’re Turning Inefficiency into Opportunity with the Chicago City Council

A photo of the Chicago City Council Chambers taken by Daniel X. ONeil.
(Daniel X. O’Neil via Flickr)
Part two of a series examining The OpenGov Foundation’s work in Chicago. Also see: part one.

There are 89,004 local government entities in the United States. While each has its own culture, constraints and colorful personalities, they all face the same overarching challenge: how to let go of the paper-based past and embrace the digital future?

From the United States Congress to the smallest city council, legislatures are struggling to evolve into the Internet Age. While the benefits of going digital are clear, the obstacles to modernization are massive. There is paper-based procedure built up over centuries. There are change-resistant bureaucracies and entrenched customs. There is fear of losing jobs and losing power. Over it all looms the harsh reality of shrinking government budgets and a small number of staff with the right skills to shepherd through such a significant sea change.

The Chicago City Council, led by Clerk Susana Mendoza, has stepped up to solve this seemingly intractable problem. In partnering with us at The OpenGov Foundation, Chicago has committed to co-creating the first fully digital, open and accessible legislature. Together, we’re overhauling the internal policy-making process to include Google Docs-style collaboration with a commitment to open data formats. Citizens will be able to stay on top of (and be heard in) city council business through a user-friendly system. We’re creating a scalable software suite to support more efficient, effective and accountable legislative operations with fewer paper-based headaches and hassles. Success is a flexible open source operating system built with the Chicago City Council that is fully adaptable to the unique realities and culture of any city, state and county legislative body.

A flow chart showing how democracy works and where the OpenGov Foundation's Chicago project fits into it.

To deliver the modern legislature we want, it is imperative we first learn as much as possible about the paper-based systems we have today. At The OpenGov Foundation we believe that we must understand the world of our government partners before proposing anything new. What is it like to live and work in the current system? Where are the pain points? What is the internal culture? What do you wish you could do?

Woe to the technologist who waltzes in with pre-made slick Silicon Valley solutions to every civic problem. And woe to the government who buys such civic tech snake oil.

That is why we have spent months digging into the day-to-day operations and rich culture of the Chicago City Council. Before writing a single line of new code, we wanted to develop a deep understanding of the policymaking process as it currently exists. We believe this is not only good partnership but good development practice. If we are seeking to streamline a complex paper-based system built up over decades, we must understand that system as it is. It is critical to select the legislative starting point with our partners in the City Clerk’s office so we can set the table for long-term success.

That starting point? Commemorative resolutions. In our next post, we’ll walk through what a commemorative resolution is, how one is created and help you see the incredible long-term opportunity we see. Our vision is more efficient, effective and collaborative lawmaking in the Chicago City Council.

Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.