Book excerpt: Make Tampa ___ by Tony DeSisto

Editor's note: In Make Tampa ___, Tampa Author Tony DeSisto suggests more actively engaging citizens through open access to government data, shifting economic development priorities and creating a seamless process for improving transportation and other community needs. Read an excerpt below.

Politicians and elected officials are quick to trot out the oft-quoted bromide that citizens are the boss and that we are a government of the people.

Unfortunately, all too often the sound bite is as far as the sentiment goes. There is a misconception among both elected officials and citizens that somehow those governing have some extra wisdom or know better than those governed. The truth is that elected officials, appointed officials, staff, and the rest of the individuals that make up the government are no different than anyone else in the City. We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to tap into the collective thoughts, wisdom, and ideas of the citizenry to make Tampa a better city. By empowering citizens and unleashing this collective wisdom we can take Tampa to great heights.

As the Co-founder and CEO of Citizinvestor, a leading provider of civic engagement and crowdfunding tools for local government, I know the difference that policies that empower citizens to invest in their community can make.
I also had the pleasure of serving on the City [of Tampa]’s Citizens Advisory Budget Committee (CABC). The committee is comprised of seven members (each appointed by one City Council member) tasked with reviewing the budget, meeting with department heads, and providing feedback and recommendations to the Council. The CABC is a great opportunity for the Council to hear from non-elected citizens and has resulted, in my opinion, in many positive actions for the City.

But what if instead of seven voices, the Council and Mayor could hear from 70, or 700, or the whole populace?

The City [of Tampa] has taken some positive steps in this direction in the past with the InVision Tampa project and the City’s hackathon. The results from these undertakings were eye-opening, offering new insight into Tampa residents’ ideas and vision for the City.

Projects like these are important beginnings in seeking out more information and opinions from the community. The City must go further and embrace open government, not as a series of one-off projects, but as a built-in ethos that permeates the governing process. Specifically, the City needs an open data policy and a focus on crowdsourced government.
With the opening of data into organized and readable formats, we have seen tools ranging from crime mapping to bus tracking popping up across the country. Imagine the possibilities that could be created in our community if instead of a three-day hackathon, data was made available on an ongoing basis. Cities across the country are creating open data standards to do just that and Tampa can be on the forefront of this trend.

On a daily basis the City takes in a large amount of data across all departments. As citizens we are familiar with some of this data, particularly the crime statistics broken out by neighborhood. But there are reams of data being collected continuously that would be similarly enlightening to the public. This includes everything from building permit applications and fulfillment times, to park attendance, to parking patterns. All of this information is important and the public should have access to it. However, it is not enough to simply provide the information. Instead it needs to be organized, searchable and in easily accessible formats.
Opening the City’s data has several benefits. It provides information to citizens about their government, encourages participation in building citizen-led solutions, and creates accountability on the part of the departments providing the data. 
The amazing thing is that open data is the exception and not the norm. If government truly works for the people, then shouldn’t the products and information behind that work belong to the people? The data is simply a recording of the interactions between the citizens themselves and their government. This is enough of a reason, in its own right, to enact an open data policy. But there are additional benefits that come out of this openness. A city can tap into the collective imagination and creativity of the populace. New solutions and tools can be created by a citizenry begging to be included in the governing process. We have seen the impact made from solutions created during three-day hackathons, let’s build this into the fabric of our governing process.
Implementing a process in which departments are releasing data on their performance creates a sense of shared accountability that will make the City more efficient and effective. Departments will get better at tracking their metrics and will have real-time feedback on how they are performing. This will not only incentivize better performance but will allow for quicker changes and improvements to be implemented based on actual information.
Opening up data to provide the information citizens need to create new tools and solutions is a great first step in improving the governing process, however, it is not enough. The City has to embrace and want to collaborate with these citizen-led initiatives. There has to be a commitment to the understanding that governing should be a collaborative process.
This process can and should take many forms in multiple outlets to encourage the most engagement. This can be online engagement platforms similar to the InVision project implemented by the Buckhorn administration or online reporting tools like what St. Petersburg implemented through SeeClickFix. What these tools have in common is that they make it easy for people to take part in the governance of their city, through idea generation and issue reporting. This type of engagement creates a sense of ownership, participation, and commitment to one’s community. It also improves the services that a city provides. However, this increased engagement also needs to occur offline to provide access and availability to all citizens. This should take the form of more issue-specific town-halls and community meetings that allow for wide-scale participation by being scheduled at convenient times and locations for the public to attend. These meetings should be geographically diverse to encourage participation throughout the City of Tampa.
Providing these outlets for increased engagement and communication between citizens and government is only half the battle. It is equally, if not more, important to have a process by which this input is consumed, internalized, and ultimately implemented by the City.
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