Sunshine In Memphis – Part 1

As Newscoma noted earlier today, this week is Sunshine week.

While I know we all get bombarded with “weeks” that are supposed to symbolize something, or highlight a cause, Sunshine week is really important to me. Sunshine week is about making government as accessible as possible, not only to journalists, but also to regular people.

If you take any time to look at the four tiers of government we have in Memphis; Federal, State, County and City, you’ll see a range of “transparency” that goes from cloudy to murky to filthy to mud, depending on where you’re looking. The Sunlight Foundation, as well as other organizations are committed to making government as transparent, and by extension, accountable to the people, as possible.

I wrote about this over two posts in late 2007 pertaining to the open meetings laws. Today, I’m going to just focus on the City web presence. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the County web presence and the Election Commission, which will be an entire post to itself.

Memphis Government

The truth of the matter is, here in Memphis knowing what your government is doing in your name can be difficult to the point that it seems intentional. IT HAS GOTTEN A WHOLE LOT BETTER in the past two years.

For instance, a quick shot over to the City Council page and you can view the minutes in a PDF, and see all the city’s business since the beginning of the year. Just one year ago, when I wrote about this, the site was so disjointed that it was impossible to navigate. Now it’s fairly organized, though I wish they would organize the archives in the same way they are organizing the 2009 meeting minutes/agendas/schedules/documents. The rss feeds are cool too, but somewhat inconsistent. Still improvement is improvement. Good job guys, but don’t get complacent.

Memphis has 38 Comissions and Boards listed. Of those, 10 have websites listed. The rest, don’t even have phone numbers listed, just the same physical address as the Mayor’s office, and an email address that probably forwards to a secretary. What do these Boards and Commissions do? Go read the page yourself, but many of them hold sway on issues of importance, yet list no members. Remember that mud I was talking about?

As for the rest of the Government offices in the Memphis City Government, they can be reached by going the the Government Home page in the upper left hand of the body. Click on the drop down menu and pick an office. From there, you’ll get a bio of the person in charge and perhaps some links on the right.

As a general statement, I’ve never seen a web site laid out the way the City of Memphis site is. In my view, this site is way beyond “unintuitive”, it’s a mess. Apparently, the last time any significant changes to the site were made was 2005 so, so that may account for the problems. The world has changed Memphis, and it may be time for a refresh.

Outside of keeping up with the City Council business, paying my Property Taxes, and maintaining my business license, I don’t have much contact with City government, so I can’t say how functionally transparent the actual city departments are. Maybe that’s a project for next month. But the simple fact that the various and sundry offices of City Government don’t have much “operational presence” online is cause for concern, and the Boards and Commissions thing is an error of omission beyond pale.

Check in tomorrow for a look at the County Government, and specifically the Election Commission.

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