April 6, 2009 By Patrick Michels
Riley's office recently spent $197 on repairs to the governor's mansion security system. "I don't think any other governor in the nation posts flight logs like this," said Burns, who was hired (not politically appointed) four years ago to help spearhead the drive for open government.
While it's a fine example of open government in practice, the extra detail on the governor's activity shows how Web functionality can be added without much extra work. According to Burns, the governor's schedule and budget are records the state was already keeping; this extra step required only the willingness to let the public see them. Taxpayers now know exactly what the governor does with every dollar of public money he spends.
Extending that same kind of openness to all Alabama state agencies was a more complex process -- in terms of technology and buy-in from staff at state agencies.
The Alabama Finance Department's SMART (Specific, Measurable, Accountable, Responsive, Transparent) governing program became the vehicle for greater transparency about the budget and agencies' performance. It's a clearinghouse of department budgets and reviews pulled together by the Finance Department.
Main began seeking ways to advance the state's fiscal openness when he was sworn in to office in 2004. When he researched what legislation would be required to make all the state's agencies comply with an open government project, he found all the cover he needed in an old law, the Alabama Budget Management Act (BMA) of 1976. "Past governors had implemented pilot programs in an effort to carry out the provisions of the BMA," said Deputy Finance Director Anne Elizabeth McGowin, "but none of these programs firmly established a feasible, efficient process of following the law. The pilot programs also failed because they were designed by consultants with no input from state agencies."
Main and McGowin took a different tack. They drew up a blueprint for the program, helped by a six-person executive committee mostly from state government, and also gathered input from other state officers. An Automation Subcommittee also "played a tremendously important role in making SMART a tech-savvy program," McGowin said. Main set a six-week deadline for the program's design, finishing the planning phase just before 2006 to ensure SMART was up and running ahead of that year's gubernatorial election.
Burns' Information Services staff was tasked with implementing the cross-agency reporting processes and drawing them together into a Web-based platform. "It was a technical challenge because you have a lot of database back-end, a lot of queries and report generation," Burns explained. "It's fairly sophisticated."
Rolling out the SMART program proved ultimately to be more an exercise in interpersonal communication than a technological challenge. "As far as the technology, it was smooth," Burns said.
Working with individual agencies, though, was tougher. "The new technology was initially a hindrance because it was a new way of doing things, and people have a tendency to resist change," McGowin said. It took months of answering questions, listening to suggestions and keeping an open door before people in various state departments began warming to SMART. "Our goodwill and hard work have helped gain the trust of many who were initially skeptical of SMART," McGowin said. By opening up the operations of each agency, she said it's driven everyone to become more results-oriented and encouraged collaboration between departments.
"That's normal in the business world," Burns noted, "but it had never been done in Alabama."
Implementation of Alabama's open government programs went through Burns' office. An eight-person Web development team, one database developer and two program planners worked on SMART. "I have a staff of 200, so this is really a small portion of what we do," Burns said. None of the work on open government initiatives was contracted out to private companies either, he said. It was
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