Medill Watchdog investigates open government issues in Chicagoland

Few things matter as much to a working democracy as transparency. Citizens have to be able to find out as much as they can about what their government is doing, and why, if government “by the people” means anything.

That logic fueled us at Medill Watchdog, where we are dedicated to exploring and exposing issues that can help democracy work better.

Last year, we began studying all the ways that democracy around Chicagoland suffers from opaqueness. And we redoubled our efforts to do something about it.

The project was launched as a Medill/News21 project, under a generous grant from the Knight Foundation as part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education. With further support from the generosity of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and Medill alum Mark Ferguson, Medill Watchdog undertook an intense examination of issues of transparency around Chicagoland.

As Medill Watchdog began exploring issues of open government around Chicagoland, we discovered recurring issues surrounding government institutions’ willingness to be open – exactly the kind of issue we live for here at Medill Watchdog. Among our findings:

Residents in most counties in Illinois have to visit their county clerk to examine whether any of the top officials in local governments have conflicts of interest. Most counties so far have simply failed to accept the idea of collecting and putting the statements of economic interests filled out by their officials online, even if Cook County offers them the tools to do so. So a group of Medill Watchdog interns spent weeks in the office of the DuPage County Clerk, copying data from the forms filed out there so that we could create online the forms that DuPage retains on paper in Wheaton. Once we had gathered the forms, we partnered with the Knight Lab to examine ways to extract data from the hand-written forms, and then to create a user-friendly tool for residents to be informed.
The state Freedom of Information Act may be a fine law; but laws only are as good as how they are implemented. Many citizens file FOIA requests seeking the simplest of information, only to find recalcitrant public officials unwilling to help. And in the worst cases, like Mary Lynn Zajdel in Lisle, residents end up feeling victims of intimidation if they try too hard to get the truth.
Frustrated citizens sometimes find that becoming active doesn’t accomplish what they hoped in terms of access. In several local boards across southern Cook County, residents get involved and ultimately run for office, only to find – if successful – that the majority may create hurdles to keep their newly elected colleagues from learning too much.
And one agency in particular – the DuPage Forest Preserve – seemed to embody just how badly things can go in terms of transparency. As good government groups fought for openness in the agency operations, citizens complained of trouble getting information, and even volunteers at Forest Preserve agencies felt harassed if they publicly spoke of problems they witnessed.

Medill interns took on these issues of transparency with gusto. Quarters came and went, but still their research – including the efforts to build, with Knight Lab help, a way for citizens in DuPage to review the data we collected – continued.

That hard work has paid off, and the interns managed to piece together their stories to expose ways that open government is hampered around Chicagloand. Special thanks to Kari Lydersen, who came in as research associate at Medill Watchdog and embraced this project. Also thanks to John Sullivan, former assistant director, who spent energy helping students on this project before he left the program. And tremendous thanks, again, to the Knight Lab, for designing a tool to help us extract data off the thousands of hand-written paper forms we had gathered; and then for helping us design a way to display both the data, and the journalism, for you.

We consider the product of the interns’ dedicated work – exposing institutional flaws that hamper democracy, and making data available to the public – to be a good reminder of what Medill Watchdog was born to do.

Rick Tulsky, Senior Lecturer
Medill Watchdog Director