Riverside, Calif., city hall Jessica Mulholland

On July 8, the city of Riverside, Calif., announced the launch of Engage Riverside -- a new website focused on open data and citizen engagement. The portal is for the city’s 815,000 public documents -- and is the start of a new approach to transparency that extends into other areas traditionally untouched by innovation, like procurement.

The city is spending a lot of time on how to be more transparent -- officials aren't just talking about it, but innovating and acting, said Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing. “We had all kinds of open data in place already, but they were all scattered,” she said. “You couldn’t find them if you tried. We realized that we had a need to have a government transparency portal where all this data could be found, and we will continue to expand on it, but right now we have lots of buttons that bring all that data together.”

Making the city’s data more accessible is just the start. The website also features a new function, powered by civic engagement platform MindMixer, that allows citizens to respond to prompts provided by the city. Eventually new functionality will be added that allows citizens to also share their ideas, Deesing said.

A portal like this is necessary, Deesing said, but it’s not enough. Becoming truly open means rethinking the normal approach to procedures like procurement. Soon, the city will issue an RFP for a new permitting system, and Deesing was recently lamenting what hard work it would be to connect the new system to the open data portal. Then she realized she was worrying about a problem that was within her power to fix– after all, her department assists in writing the RFP.

“When we’re buying software, why aren’t we requiring these big software companies who are going through this lengthy RFP process to have a publishing mechanism for open data?" she said. "Instead of having to do it ourselves after the fact, kind of like an afterthought, why don’t we just build that into the RFP process? If we’re going to spend a million plus dollars on a system, then just give us some kind of nice visual tool that has data dictionary elements that will help us decide which fields we want to publish into our open data portal using some type of standard.”

Riverside plans to create a new open data policy that will reconfigure how several processes work, including procurement. “We would like to take it to the next level – really just start opening things up and really becoming more transparent, not just publishing our budget,” she explained. “A lot of people are coming to our site, so we want to make it meaningful to them.”

Engage Riverside features pages for a variety of city transparency efforts, including open records, budget and finance, open data, a fraud hotline, an idea sharing portal, departmental results, city council and board meetings, and maps. And Geographic Information Systems data, Deesing said, is another area that government needs to open.

Editor's Note: Minor changes were made to this story on July 9, 2014, for accuracy.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.