What’s so unusual about college students wanting to make a difference in the world?
How about having a well-researched plan to pull it off.
During a year of intensively studying information in the Internet age, a class of University of Utah honors students has developed a set of five guiding principles to help local governments throughout the state become more transparent.
“Information is the currency of democracy. It is the key to citizen engagement,” said Theresa Krause, one of the honors “Think Tank” students who will unveil those guiding principles on Wednesday. “The Internet has made data available and changed the way we think about transparency and access to government.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Council Chairman Soren Simonsen are expected to be present to express their support for the Transparency Project during its formal introduction at the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.
The project’s goal is to persuade all 270-plus county and city governments in Utah to adopt the principles.
“If fully implemented, it could have a profound effect on local government,” said Randy Dryer, a longtime Salt Lake City attorney (and former U. trustee) who put his legal background in First Amendment issues to use last fall when he became a full-time professor overseeing the Think Tank.
“The Think Tank gave students an opportunity to study a topical issue in depth, learning from community experts and others outside of the classroom and then to take that information and develop a project that will have some utility and impact outside of the university,” he said. “Hopefully, it will have a great legacy.”
Actually, the Think Tank students came up with two projects that address the divergent issues arising from the Internet age in which they grew up.
While half the 10-member class developed the Transparency Project, the other half focused on privacy issues, having come to realize that “Google never forgets. Once something is on the Internet,” Dryer said, “it’s there permanently.”
These students are creating a series of YouTube videos designed to educate students about ways they can protect themselves from unwanted Internet exposure. Scheduled for release this summer or early fall, the videos emphasize that “unless you take some affirmative steps, the erosion of your personal privacy will continue,” Dryer said.
(The Salt Lake Tribune was a community partner in the Think Tank class. A managing editor provided editing assistance for the final report the class will produce. The newspaper also paid for a poll of questions written by students exploring citizen opinions about online access to government information.)
To immerse their students in the meaning of full disclosure, Dryer and fellow instructors Corper James and Valeri Craigle made the class as transparent as possible.
Every lecture was videotaped; every class presentation, too. Students had to comment daily on Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and blogs. Anyone who wanted could see what the Think Tank and its individual members were up to — and some students developed notable followings.
“We called it ‘Think Tank in a fish bowl.’ For a semester, they were living an exposed life,” Dryer said. “Some adapted pretty quickly to it and [the exposure] wasn’t a concern. But others didn’t like it, and it created some anxiety for them.”
Tianna Tu didn’t have many problems with the openness. “After a couple of hours,” she said, “you got used to the camera and it was second nature to express your opinions.”
Tu was one of five students who formulated the Transparency Project, whose five guiding principles encourage local governments — those closest to the people — to develop “open government” websites that give people online access to meetings, contact information for elected officials and staff, background materials, emails and other forms of electronic communication, financial records and, basically, everything produced by those governments.
And because transparency means this information must be accessible in a usable way, Tu said desired videos or documents should be reached within “three clicks” on a computer.
Most of Utah’s local governments don’t come close to meeting the principles outlined by the students in their proposal.
Citing a Sutherland Institute analysis of online records’ availability in Utah’s 29 counties during last year’s legislative debate over the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA), Krause noted that the average grade was a D.
“We’d really like to bring that up,” she said, recognizing that many smaller counties are strapped for resources and personnel to keep their websites updated continuously.
The project’s intent was not to be critical of those governments, Tu added, but to “suggest things they can do to achieve transparency.” Right now, she said, Salt Lake City boasts the most transparent system, reaping an A minus, while Salt Lake County earned a B.
As the students wrapped up their development of the guiding principles, they began reaching out to organizations for support. Knowing that government processes move slowly and that their class ends in May, Dryer said, the students hope these backers will help push for long-term implementation of these principles.
Just last week, the students gained an endorsement from the Utah League of Women Voters. They also have received considerable support from the Sutherland Institute, Common Cause, Utah Media Coalition, Utah Broadcasters Association, Society of Professional Journalists and The Tribune.
The students’ work thrills open-records advocate Claire Geddes.
“It’s something the state really, really needs,” she said. “It would help people become more involved. People really have lost faith in government because it is difficult to figure out the system. Anything we can do to make government accessible to the public is good for everyone, including lawmakers.”
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon welcomed the chance for Think Tank students to have their recommendations placed before the County Council for consideration.
“The students’ focus on transparency is warranted,” he said. “Transparency is one of the basic tenets of good government and a democratic government. Without accessibility and transparency, citizens lose a great deal of power over how their community is governed.”
‘Best Practices’ for local government transparency
Students in the University of Utah’s Honors Think Tank on Transparency and Privacy drafted a proposal for local governments that would make their operations more open to the public. It calls for:
• Establishing a single “open government” Web page that serves as a “searchable, sortable and downloadable” repository for all public government information, including third-party contracts, employee compensation, financial reports and requests for police and fire service.
• Collecting, generating and maintaining government information in digital form and making it available on the open-government Web page.
• Considering emails, instant messages and other electronic communications made with government-supplied equipment to be public records.
• Requiring elected officials and appointed senior administrators to post advance schedules of public meetings online and to commit to developing a culture of transparency.
• Making all public meetings truly transparent, through live streaming on the Internet (with opportunities for citizen commentary online) or posting of proceedings on the website within 48 hours of the meeting.