Chicago may be the hometown of Al Capone, John Dillinger, and scandal-prone politicians Richard Daley and Rod Blagojevich, but not everyone in the Windy City plays fast and loose with the rules. The city’s long-standing inspector general’s office (IGO) is, according to its website, “dedicated to ensuring honesty and integrity…by rooting out waste, inefficiency, corruption, fraud, and other misconduct” in city government.
But it’s understaffed, with only around 50 employees. (Toronto has an auditor-general’s office with a similar mandate, and 27 employees.) So the IGO has taken a novel approach to filling the staffing gap, by bringing on political-science undergrads from the city’s Northwestern University. This past winter, 17 students worked with IGO staff to identify notable examples of government transparency worldwide, in an attempt to find new ideas for the city’s Open Chicago initiative, to improve government accountability.
Their efforts count as coursework, and their professor, Donald Gordon, is probably the right man for the job. He published a book in 2010 called Piss ‘Em All Off: And Other Practices of the Effective Citizen, and is working on a follow-up.
According to Gordon, the course, which will happen again next year, was a learning experience for everyone, himself included. He came out of it believing that information about government and elected officials should simply be made available to citizens—they shouldn’t have to file complicated freedom of information requests for to obtain it.
“If there’s some [information] the city doesn’t want to produce, they should make the case why not, rather than making citizens beg for everything,” he says. He criticizes Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel in particular. Though Emanuel campaigned on a pro-transparency platform, he’s been reluctant to disclose his schedule and work-related communications since taking office.
Rob Ford has come under fire for similar reasons, but his ties to Chicago are well-known. The Ford-family company, Deco Labels & Tags, has a subsidiary office there, and the mayor led a trade delegation to the city just this week. Maybe this is one Chicago-born idea he can bring back home.