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Transparency Efforts Make Alabama More Accountable to Citizens

Alabama uses Virtual Earth and other simple Web tools to make government data more open.

by / April 6, 2009

When Alabama Gov. Bob Riley took office in 2003, one of his first priorities was making the daily operations of state government more transparent.

Riley's open government initiative took on particular significance after he won the gubernatorial election by 3,000 votes -- the narrowest in Alabama's history -- and replaced former Gov. Don Siegelman, who was convicted on corruption charges. Riley's goal was not just to satisfy legal requirements for posting information online, but also to layer the information with extra context and a useful interface so it would make a practical difference to Alabamans.

Six years later, with Riley halfway through his second term as governor, that early vision has yielded transparency in all corners of the state's government. The state built novel tools that let citizens view such things as a log of all the governor's flights and a registry of all lobbyists working in the state, and perhaps most impressively, they can see what land Alabama state government is leasing using Microsoft Virtual Earth.

According to Jim Burns, the state's CIO, all this makes Alabama one of the most upfront state governments.

"It may be the case that this is the most open of any state government in the nation," he said.


Alabama Map App

For a look at Alabama's open government initiative in practice, start with the government's physical presence. A Web-based "lease search" function on the Alabama Department of Finance's site lets the public track down information on every building and office space leased by state agencies, including who landlords are and how much the state is paying for a particular property. The lease search was the brainchild of state Finance Director Jim Main, who wanted to develop a way for taxpayers to see just how much Alabama spends on office space.

To help put the search into action, Main teamed with Burns at Alabama's Information Services Division (ISD) to create a searchable, Web-based application. A mapping mash-up was also added, handled by the Virtual Earth application programming interface. By using GIS data kept for each government property -- some of which was already gathered before the lease search was developed -- Burns and his staff at the ISD gave users a more practical way to navigate the data.

According to a statement from the Geospatial Office at Alabama's ISD, a little more than half of addresses in the lease search were located by "geocoding," determining geographic coordinates from other data, like street maps. "The remaining properties were manually located by interpreting the available information and calling the tenants to verify their coordinates," the statement said. The process required asking tenants for directions to the building, and following along on a map. The Geospatial Office is a new addition to the ISD tasked with maintaining accurate and up-to-date records of city streets.

Geocoding is taking on a more important role in Alabama's operations. The geocoding effort gives users an interface that's much friendlier than a spreadsheet of street addresses. The Virtual Earth mapping function is one large-scale example of how Alabama has added functionality, beyond the minimum requirements prescribed by law, to give users a more meaningful experience with the data. "That's sort of the banner program for this initiative," Burns said.


A More Accountable Governor

After talking a big game early on about open government, Riley made a point of setting an example of openness. The governor's Web site includes detailed flight logs of his travel -- where he flew, when and with whom -- and the details of his budget, right down to photocopies and the grocery bill. If you're keeping score at home,

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.


Working SMARTer

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

all handled in-house.


One-Stop Web Portal Planned

Other features of Alabama's open government initiative include detailed reports on the state's general fund and the 300-page Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the comptroller's rundown of each line item in the state budget. And the state purchasing office lists online its contracts up for bid, which only required putting a public Web interface on the existing database. "There's no extra work to make it available on the Internet. It's a work-saver because lots of vendors want to know what contracts the state has," Burns said. In the past, state employees had to field phone calls from vendors looking for contract details. "It saves money because those queries are averted; they get their answer right before they bug anybody over the phone," he said.

Soon, Alabama's open government programs will be tied together in one simple Web portal, Burns said, giving citizens access to all these searches in one place. "The portal itself is going to be a lightweight thing. It's just a cobbling together of things that are already done," he explained. The emphasis will be on presenting Alabamans useful tools for obtaining information about the state, like the map-driven lease search and the governor's flight logs.

McGowin said the programs will also improve efficiency in the transition to a new administration. Riley, subject to Alabama's two-term limit, can't run for re-election in 2010. "When a new governor takes office, he or she will have data and information readily available to use in decision-making and priority-setting," McGowin said. "SMART has allowed decision-making to be based on data instead of someone's guesstimate."

Burns said his office looked around for examples to draw on, and found little being done by other state governments that were comparable to Alabama's initiative. "These are things they can do to make government more open and more accessible. It's just a good thing."

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Patrick Michels Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.
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