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Democracy in America

Chicago Asks Students to Help It Be More Transparent

Chicago Asks Students to Help It Be More Transparent
Flckr/Michael_lehet

A new course at Northwestern University presents an ingenious cost-cutting move for cities staring at mountains of debt: bring in a team of undergrads to do your work for free.

Starting in January, students enrolled in Poli Sci 395 are set to work directly with officials in Chicago's Inspector General's office to improve transparency and accountability within the government of the country's third largest city.

"I wanted to give students an opportunity to experience real civic engagement," says Northwestern political science professor Don Gordon, who created the course. "I wanted to give them a sense that they can make an impact by engaging in their community."

Urban studies programs around the country often include a stint of public service, an internship with local government or a close examination of the development and execution of urban policy. But this is next-level engagement, not to mention a rare opportunity for undergrads.

Gordon, who worked as a community activist in Chicago for decades and ran for alderman four years ago, first proposed the course during a December 2010 lunch with Chicago's Inspector General, Joseph Ferguson, who had guest lectured in Gordon's earlier courses. Ferguson was receptive, as were Northwestern's higher-ups, and by March it was a done deal.

That same month the Inspector General's office launched Open Chicago, a project to enhance transparency in city government as a means to improve efficiency, integrity and accountability. The initiative aims to provide Chicagoans, the media, and elected officials greater access to key documents and data, and allow them to make recommendations.

"[The Northwestern] course is designed to further the work of our Open Chicago initiative, so the students will be conducting analysis and research that we have wanted to do with our own staff but haven’t yet done, so that’s a tremendous benefit,” says Aaron Feinstein, IGO Director of Program and Policy Review.

Due to funding shortfalls across the municipal government, the Inspector General's office is woefully under-staffed. The office is budgeted for 69 positions, yet has just 50 employees on staff. "While the students get fantastic, hands-on experience, the IGO gets free labor,” says Gordon.

Longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley often stressed transparency, but his successor made it a keystone of his campaign, promising "the most open, accountable and transparent government that the city of Chicago has ever seen." Since taking office in May, Mayor Emanuel has made a wealth of information on crime, lobbyist clients and city contracts available for the first time.

Yet he has also been taken to task for withholding information about his daily schedule, interoffice communications and the development of major policy initiatives like a recent water rate hike, the addition of more traffic cameras and plans for a downtown casino.

Feinstein has seen positive changes, but he's hoping for more. "The city has not made as meaningful strides in disclosing data and information that inform the public about the decision-making process," he says. For example, the IGO has asked Emanuel's office to release documents provided to the city council – but not made available to the public – during the recent budget debate.  

The course, which may help bring such documents to light, has been a hot commodity on campus. Its 15 available spots filled up within 24 hours of the opening of registration last month. Gordon now plans to add a few more seats.

Early in the course, the students will scour the country for innovative examples of transparency in local governance, such as New Mexico's Sunshine Portal or Manor, Texas's, Manor Labs, and pass them on to their colleagues at Open Chicago.

The students will then examine transparency within the city department of their choice: the police department, the fire department, emergency management services, the department of procurement – or just about any other city body. They'll pore over available data, look at how it's made available, its accessibility, its utility, and also consider what information is not available. Each student's final project will be put on the IGO website, available for scrutiny by city officials and the general public.

Ferguson is slated for a guest lecture, and the students will pay at least one visit to the downtown offices of the Inspector General. "Getting people who do not work on the city day-to-day we think will bring a fresh perspective to the analysis of the city's transparency and accountability efforts,” says Feinstein. "I think the students are likely to ask and then attempt to answer fundamental questions that those of us who work on this every day may occasionally lose sight of."

Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Feinstein. Gordon might urge his charges toward aggressive critiques of their city-employed colleagues. He recently wrote a book on civic engagement entitled, Piss Em All Off: And Other Practices of the Effective Citizen.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Michael Lehet.

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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