Montgomery County unveils digital initiative in effort to be more open

To be more transparent, Montgomery County officials announced a comprehensive initiative Wednesday to create an online constituent forum and to place all kinds of public information, including employee salaries and annual budgets, online.

County officials hope the program, called open Montgomery, will spur commerce by providing companies information such as property tax data. Officials also want to make it easier for residents to reach county agencies.

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At a news conference Wednesday to announce the intiative, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said it is a “significant step toward . . . transparency, accessibility and efficiency.”

The program costs $1 million to start and about $700,000 a year to maintain, county officials said. The digital initiative makes Montgomery the Washington leader for digital transparency, said Alan R. Shark, an expert on government technology.

“It turns bureaucracy on its head,” said Shark, executive director and chief executive of the Public Technology Institute, who was not involved with the project. He said the program is “so ahead of the game” compared to nearby jurisdictions and is “on par” with major cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York.

The news conference follows legislation approved by the Montgomery County Council on Tuesday. Introduced by council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), the legislation authorizes the county to create an implementation plan within 18 months that would establish when and how county data would be released.

On the Web site, www.montgomerycountymd.gov/open, residents can post suggestions to new initiatives and report complaints with the county’s 311 system, which allows people to request non-emergency government services. Residents can also access a list of salaries for all county employees and a list of county contracts.

Information on the Web site includes the addresses of library branches and hospitals and a log of complaints that county residents have made to their cable companies. Much of the information was already online. But the new site puts it all in one place, and residents can even search and manipulate data using spreadsheets.

Riemer said the initiative demonstrates that the county is “at the cutting edge" in the IT industry. He said Web developers could use the site’s information, such as tax data, to create mobile applications.

Other jurisdictions are working on increasing transparency and civic engagement. In Alexandria, officials have started the What’s Next Alexandria initiative to “begin a community conversation about civic engagement and planning for the future.” In Arlington County, officials set up a virtual town center, creating a social network called PlaceSpace and an online forum called Open Arlington so residents can talk with government officials.

And in Prince George’s County, officials have taken steps to increase accountability and access to government services. In March, County Executive Rusher L. Baker III unveiled CountyStat, which unpacked government data so he could analyze and evaluate how county agencies were doing. Montgomery has a similar oversight system.

Montgomery has incorporated its CountyStat and 311 data into the new system and plans to update the data regularly.

“Our objective is to [update] as much in near-real time as we can,” Sonny Segal, Montgomery’s chief information officer, said.

 
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