The Affirmative Information Policy: Opening Up a Closed City

Source: P. Clavel and W. Wiewel, eds, Harold Washington and the Neighbourhoods: Progressive City Government in Chicago 1983-1987. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

The Affirmative Information Policy: Opening Up a Closed City


The election of Harold Washington shook Chicago’s governmental and political structures to their very foundations. Long-accepted policies and practices, not the least of which was government’s habitual secrecy, were suddenly open to scrutiny and debate. In fact, one of the first major challenges facing the new Washington administration in 1983 involved prying open the doors and windows of a government in the back room for half a century, whose business had been conducted in private, and in which public participation in policy formation was considered anathema. The populist orientation of Washington’s movement-style campaign virtually guaranteed that this closed and secretive system would be exposed and challenged.

In fact, Washington’s populist campaign themes, backed by strong neighborhood-based demands for increased citizen participation, set the context for creating policies that signaled not simply an open government but an invitational one. This account will touch on a number of these participation strategies but will concentrate on one particularly innovative thrust which came to be called Affirmative Neighborhood Information.

This approach was conceived basically as a systematic response to the shortcomings of Freedom of Information Acts when viewed from the perspective of the empowerment agenda articulated by community organizations in consort with a populist-oriented city administration.

My own involvement in the development of a set of inventive information-related policies for the Washington administration grew out of a neighborhood-oriented information project at Northwestern University’s Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research.1 From that base, an action research team had collaborated with a number of community organizations in Chicago to experiment with ways of collecting and using neighborhood-specific data. Some of our work had introduced microcomputers into the organizations and had experimented with new ways of making data easily digestible. Involvement in the Washington campaign

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City council members who were active in the Daley years provided at least a partial listing of the most common techniques used by the mayor and his legislative leaders to thwart the flow of information in the council:

  • Titles of ordinances were vague and contained little information about the contents of the bills.
  • Ordinances were often introduced and called up for a vote on the same day.
  • City council leaders resisted the introduction of an ordinance numbering system.
  • Leaders frequently slipped something controversial through the council by making it part of an “omnibus” package.

Given these consistent practices in pursuit of the protection of information, it is ironic that the avenues for obtaining information occasionally appeared to be more accessible to the antimachine independents in the council. “They didn’t care about making noise and making enemies,” explained a machine stalwart. “They could raise hell, go public, go to the media, and maybe they’d get something.”10 One independent reported constructing an elaborate set of procedures for keeping his own records of council legislation and votes. Similarly, reporters and representatives from civic and community groups occasionally found that unfavorable publicity or legal action were successful strategies for obtaining information about legislation.

This commitment to a closed flow of information persisted during the Bilandic and Byrne administrations. Our interviews produced little evidence that much, if anything, changed during this period. Perhaps the clearest summary of the state of the city’s information, both its collection and its dissemination, at the conclusion of the Byrne administration is contained in the Executive Summary of the first volume of the Washington administration transition report, Blueprint of Chicago Government. The report stresses throughout the extreme difficulties encountered by the authors in their pursuit of information. The “Findings” section begins:

We have, in the process of this detailed investigation, discovered certain general conditions which are nearly universal in all of these municipal agencies.

One of the most obvious and pervasive facts about Chicago city government that has repeatedly been evident in our research is that basic information needed to understand how the City works, to assess how we I services are provided and to determine who is responsible for various city programs is incredibly difficult to obtain. Simple questions like what an agency actually does, the total amount of money an agency spends, and the names of people who run the agency are difficult to answer. Getting even this simple descriptive information requires consulting several different sources, many of which are hard to decipher.11

Modernizing Information Systems in the City

Against this backdrop of both bureaucratic and politically determined secrecy, however, the numbers of professionally trained administrators in Chicago government grew steadily during the Daley, Bilandic, and Byrne years. One longtime city computer expert recalled, “I remember it was about 1970 that I started to get piles of job applications from people calling themselves ‘systems analysts.’ That was the time when I think it really dawned on the powers that be that we couldn’t really keep track of the money and the personnel without drastically upgrading our information capacities.”12

But in Chicago, of course, these developments did not signal a final shift from the old-style political mode of information management to the new-style administrative, or “reform,” mode. Rather they appeared to lead to the existence, for at least a decade, of a peculiar two-track system of information collection and use. On the one hand, a number of agencies and departments, staffed increasingly with technically trained administrators and information experts, collected and stored “systems” data concerning their programs and operations. These data, increasingly computerized, were reported as required to the externally located bureaucracies, often federal, that controlled and to some extent monitored program funds. In addition, data were utilized internally for routine bureaucratic functions like building inspections. At the same time, however, the older “political” mode of handling information persisted. That is, privately held, personally and informally communicated information continued to determine, in many instances, what “really” happened in a department or agency. Hiring and firing, budgeting and programming decisions continued to be based almost entirely on the personal, political calculus of the machine politicians—not on the administratively defined needs of the particular department.

In Chicago, this two-track system for handling information existed in precarious balance for considerably more than a decade. While it held sway, it seemed to foster an extremely circumscribed, narrowly utilitarian view of the politics of information. That is, systematically collected information was most often thought of as helpful neither to the departments themselves, except for routine purposes, nor to clients or constituents, nor to policymakers. Information collection constituted rather a set of hurdles to be overcome mainly insofar as external agencies demanded that they be overcome. Since virtually no important decisions were connected with what was known or collected systematically, the data often did not need to be timely, accurate, or relevant to decision making.

Not surprisingly, and also not unique to Chicago, one of the outcomes of this two-track approach to information was the gradual and almost surreptitious development of an interdepartmental network of people whose jobs involved the collection and analysis of data, and whose inclinations were, as one department head put it, to “really care about information.” One important magnet that drew these people together around it was in fact the city’s Data Center, only half-jokingly described by a city computer veteran as “a haven for technical refugees from the Pacific Northwest.”13

Increasingly numerous, however, these information professionals appeared to be politically isolated, considered marginal and unimportant by the city’s patronage work force. What possible incentive existed for department workers who owed their positions to their ward-based political activity to respond to distant supervisors operating within a totally foreign and irrelevant administrative framework? Insofar as the cooperation of workers is necessary for the collection of accurate and timely data in a particular department, these barriers were quite significant.

The isolation of the information professionals also limited the uses to which data, once collected, were to be put. Politically connected department heads were often both products and beneficiaries of the old political style of decision making—or they were at least compelled to adapt to it. Many were themselves familiar only with the oral, informal style and lived by Daley’s dictum that “good politics is good government” and vice versa. Decisions were thus based on the calculus of the political quid pro quo, requiring deep familiarity with a set of “signals” and information almost totally divorced from systematically collected data within a given department. The constant care and feeding of the network of political obligations known as the machine superseded all other criteria for decision making. There was no place in this network for the information professionals, and little outlet for their work internal to the departments. As a consequence, information collected and reported by these isolated professionals was quite often not even seen by department heads, who understandably regarded it as irrelevant. Clearly these arrangements affected both the quantity and the quality of the data collected.

Openness and Participation: Two Key Themes in the Washington Campaign

This, then, was the state of the “politics of information” in Chicago as the city approached the mayoral campaign of 1983. But from the outset of Washington’s populist-oriented campaign the promise of “open government” was a central theme. This commitment was expressed in an early and oft-repeated pledge to issue an executive order on freedom of information (FOI) on the first day of a Washington administration.

This emphasis upon FOI as the cornerstone of reform in Chicago government was wholly understandable. Illinois had been the last state to enact such an ordinance—it finally did so in 1983—and Chicago virtually the last major city without one. The symbolic importance of such a step would mark a significant break from past practices and would in fact provide clear evidence of the reform intentions promised by the new administration. Furthermore, powerful constituencies extending beyond independent politicians were lined up behind the FOI thrust. These included the press, as well as many important civic organizations. Washington and his advisors were intimately familiar with the legislative history of FOI acts and were clearly committed to bringing the city in line with the rest of the country.

In addition, early in the Washington campaign, another seemingly unrelated theme emerged, one which would open the possibility that the government’s approach to information policy might be extended significantly beyond the standard FOI conception. This second theme held out the promise that citizen participation would become the hallmark of this particular, populist version of reform and that local, neighborhood-based activity would be nurtured and validated.

The emphasis on neighborhood initiatives and citizen participation in the Washington campaign reflected accurately the perspectives of many of the key figures involved in the often disorganized, chronically underfunded, yet highly energetic Washington effort. Many of the field organizers and members of the policy formation team brought years of antimachine activity to their campaign work. A group of about a dozen staff and volunteers argued consistently for the kinds of decentralist empowerment-oriented policies that reflected their extensive experience in a variety of community organizing settings.

In fact, the voting blocks targeted by campaign strategists were made up almost entirely of groups that could be expected to resonate positively to the participation theme. First and foremost, of course, came the necessity to knit together the disparate elements of the black community into a uniform, activated base of support. Clearly the participation theme was one key response to the almost universal feeling among blacks that they had remained peripheral for too long.

In addition, the long-time community organization leadership in both Latino and white areas of the city responded quickly and positively to the emphasis on open governmental processes and local neighborhood initiatives. Until the Washington campaign, most of these groups shared an aversion to electoral political involvement. This aversion was based on both experience and strategic principle. The shared experience involved years of interaction and often conflict with the closed nature of the patronage-based loced ward organizations. The strategic presumptions, particularly for the activist multi-issue groups, stressed the need to bring independently organized pressure to bear continually upon all elected officials.

But the participation themes stressed by toe Washington effort proved promising enough to break this pattern of electoral aloofness. Here was a candidacy that did indeed look more like a populist movement than a modern campaign, one which featured an unimpeachably “progressive” candidate thrust into contention by an unprecedented mobilization of the most excluded residents of the city. Further, the platform expressed in The Washington Papers reflected not only the content of a program favorable to local participation and empowerment but also a process that had involved community leadership centrally in its production.

If it were in fact possible that significant city resources would be redirected from big downtown projects to the neighborhoods; and if a new administration were to commit itself to open government in place of the closed machine style; and if the developing proposals for active neighborhood participation in planning and development were to be implemented—then the context for local activity would be significantly changed. Slowly and steadily during the Washington campaign, the virulent and reality-based skepticism of many community groups began to lift.

Even as community groups continued, with considerable success, to push the Washington platform toward placing even stronger emphasis on the participation theme, the constituencies backing FOI were also gaining in both numbers and impact. “Secrecy” in the Jane Byrne administration became a central issue in the primary campaign, and candidate Richard M. Daley featured a commitment to FOI as prominently as did Washington. And when, after his primary victory, Washington’s transition team began the attempt to collect data about Chicago’s governmental operations, the obstacles they encountered only served to reinforce this pledge among key policy development insiders.

Still, the link between the commitments to open government and to community participation had not been articulated. As community-based actors talked about FOI they revealed that, in their views, a traditionally construed FOI Act, however broadly drawn, would help neighborhood group very little. Three basic limits of FOI presented themselves. First, FOI is basically a statement of the willingness to react and respond, not to initiate. Community-based organizations (CBOs) would be the initiators. And few community-based groups possessed the resources, in time or staff, to aggressively pursue data that were physically distant and of unproved relevance to local agendas. Civic organizations and coalitions located in the downtown area, with adequate staff and a developed research agenda, could be expected to join the press and some public officials in taking advantage of the FOI opportunities—but not neighborhood-based organizations.

The second limitation of FOI with respect to CBOs concerned the form of the data that would be made available. FOI implied no obligation to make information intelligible, let alone systematically useful for community constituents. When it was obtained, it came in the form collected and used by the department involved, not by anyone on the outside; often, it required considerable expertise to “decode” and make intelligible.

And finally, FOI presented community groups with an opportunity that was ironically at odds with the overall policy directions of a populist administration, one aimed at developing consistent neighborhood policy in consort with active community organizations. FOI policies respond most readily to tightly drawn requests aimed at a single item or set of items. For CBOs, the targeting of such discrete and specific information needs would be most often embedded in a process of issue identification and action that could be characterized as serial, disconnected, and frequently ad hoc. Further, targeted lists of information obtained from the government were more likely to be appropriate to a protest agenda than to a development agenda. (For example, ownership of slum buildings had been one commonly sought piece of information.)

Thus, from the point of view of CBOs, there was an irony in the Washington campaign’s commitment to FOI. These organizations were being handed a tool whose utility was best suited to an adversarial relationship with the public sector, but this tool was being offered by an administration with a strong commitment to ending that kind of relationship and to building CBOs’ capacities to act for themselves in partnership with the city administration.

New city officials from the Mayor’s Press Office, the Data Center, the Department of Neighborhoods, and the Budget Department joined transition team members in the conviction that an “affirmative” approach to information on the part of the new administration could overcome these objections and was both feasible and sensible. The city government collected and stored data covering a broad range of subject areas. Some of it, no doubt, was potentially useful to constituencies beyond the bureaucracies that collected it. Should it not be possible to design a system for sorting out what was useful, for making it understandable to “non-experts,” and for making it available on an “affirmative” basis (that is, proactively) to neighborhood groups?

The route from conceptualization of the project to its initiation, however, was to prove circuitous indeed. All of the relevant actors, both in the neighborhoods and in city government, needed to be convinced that affirmative information was an innovation worth pursuing, that in fact it extended their capacities for accomplishing already existing objectives. Inside city hall this effort centered on defining the Affirmative Neighborhood Information proposal in relationship to the existing commitment to FOI.

With CBO leadership, discussions took place mainly within the context of the transition team’s efforts to define an overall approach to neighborhood policy for the new administration. This latter set of discussions had virtually nothing to do with “information needs,” focusing instead on the definition of neighborhood needs, particularly for resources, authority, and vehicles for participation in decision making.

CBOs in the Transition Process: Neighborhood Needs Begin to Include Information

During the transition process, which spanned the new mayor’s first months in office, two particular task forces drew widespread interest and participation on the part of neighborhood groups: one focused on policy recommendations in the housing area, and the other more generally on neighborhood-oriented initiatives. The importance of these efforts transcended the particular policy recommendations set forth (although a sizable proportion of those were at least partially implemented by the administration in its first year). Rather, these task forces, and the forums and hearings that they convened, marked for Chicago’s CBOs their first officially sanctioned opportunity to discuss needs and priorities across neighborhood boundaries, to discover both common issues and significant differences, and to share together some reasonable (yet often skeptical held) expectations that a cooperative stance vis-a-vis city hall was possible.

Though they were themselves, obviously, important exercises in open communication, none of the discussions within the transition process focused directly on the information needs of communities. Yet valuable lessons were learned that reconfirmed the importance of increasing neighborhood access to and sophistication about city-held data. One illustration of the way in which information needs entered these discussions concerns that segment of the Neighborhood Task Force that was to examine the possibilities for a formalized neighborhood planning process. During these discussions, some of which I convened, the wide variance in neighborhood-based capacities and interests was made very clear. Sophisticated neighborhood organizations with existing development capacities saw little need for an expanded city role-in fact, such a role was seen as potentially competitive, a drain on resources already cornered by the group. On the other hand, small, struggling CBOs tended to welcome any and all forms of city initiative in their neighborhoods, more or less on the theory that “anything is better than nothing.” The conclusion drawn from these divergent viewpoints was in one way no conclusion at all—yet, in another, a very important recognition of community diversity. The transition report argued that no single formal system of neighborhood planning could possibly satisfy everyone. But in addition to that decision to back away from the universal installation of some form of Neighborhood Planning Board came a closer examination of exactly what kinds of resource the city could provide—resources that would aid both the established and the struggling groups. In that context, information came to be regarded as a more universal, nonthreatening commodity that the city held and could distribute.

Thus CBOs began to raise their expectations concerning the information programs of the city. They began, in fact, to constitute themselves as an expanded marketplace for public information. Hundreds of community representatives, for example, attended public hearings on the city’s fiscal year 1984 budget, and hundreds more a day-long forum with administration officials on the Year X Community Development Block Grant budget. The status of informed consumer of information clearly appealed to CBOs across the city as the most logical and universal position to take vis-a-vis the new administration, for it left open the full range of local options for defining neighborhood-based activity and response.

Though this general stance by CBOs fell short of the vision of full support and partnership hoped for by some in the new administration, it nonetheless represented a highly significant shift in the historic relations between the neighborhoods and city hall. Expectations were being heightened on each side, at least some of which began to center on the expansion of shared information as the base on which to build further partnership arrangements.

Meanwhile, inside the new city administration, officials were focusing quite clearly on information issues, particularly the issuance of Washington’s oft-promised FOI executive order. But, not surprisingly, complications appeared, delaying the order’s appearance for some three months.

How would the executive order be worded? What kinds of information would it cover, and what kinds would it exclude? Where would responsibility for its implementation be lodged, and how would it be structured? The answers to these questions did not appear as a rational construct, full blown at the inauguration, but rather emerged gradually through a process of proposal, reaction, response, and personnel shifts. The ad hoc nature of this process was consonant with the overall mode of operation within the Washington administration during its first year. And it was understandable, given the constant shifting and redefinition of the political ground rules in Chicago’s politics.

In fact, during the administration’s first year and a half, five different persons served as the city’s FOI officer, and each brought a different set of perspectives and skills to the task. What they had in common was a shared understanding of FOI as politically central to the Washington definition of reform. Each had been an active participant in the campaign and had absorbed the political importance of the promise to “open up city government.” If the new administration could not deliver on that promise with some dispatch, a major chance for maintaining credibility would be lost. Further, quick delivery on this commitment seemed politically feasible, in a way which other initiatives did not, since the problematic legislative approval process could be bypassed, and authority could be lodged in an already budgeted position within the Mayor’s Office.

The first person appointed to the newly created position was an anti machine former state legislator, James Houlihan, a lawyer with some experience in FOI legislation. Houlihan was ensconced in the Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs—a division of the Mayor’s Office whose major function normally was to facilitate the city’s legislative agendas with other bodies of government, particularly at the state level. His placement there reflected both an acknowledgment of the political nature of FOI and the fact that, as he put it, “There was no place else to put me.”14

Under Houlihan’s guidance, the executive order was drafted, circulated among administration officials for comments and reactions, redrafted, and proclaimed—a process that was completed within three months of the new regime’s tenure. The content of the order, according to FOI experts, reflected a quite liberal interpretation of both the kinds of information now available and the means provided to gain public access to it. Houlihan and his staff were immediately responsive to the conception of Affirmative Neighborhood Information. Both the reasons for their enthusiasm and their contributions to the process of initiation are important to note. From the first meetings with these officials, it became clear that they regarded Affirmative Neighborhood Information as a logical extension of FOI and, further, as an approach that could help provide solutions to problems already evident in the implementation of that policy.

These problems were numerous. Virtually no city department was structured to facilitate public access to information. Further, most had no central, systematized method for collecting, storing, and accessing the information it used. Many top and middle-level officials who were holdovers from previous administrations were at least wary of the new policy and tended to define publicly available information, in one staffer’s words, as “whatever they’ve always given out when somebody bugged them enough.” And newly appointed department heads most often had little idea of what kinds of information their departments regularly collected, in what form it existed, or how reliable it was.

As Houlihan began circulating the first draft of the executive order for departmental comment and reaction, he began to discern two major areas of concern. The first was legal in nature and was almost immediately regarded by FOI advocates as “mostly a smoke screen.”15 The second and more serious concerned the lack of resources to implement the policy. In the short term, department heads would be required to reshuffle duties so that the position of information officer could be established and a listing of data held by the department be produced. In the longer term, department heads were fearful of the additional workload imposed by frequent and unpredictable FOI requests from the public.

These resource-oriented concerns led Houlihan to seek outside technical assistance from a variety of sources. Computer manufacturing representatives were involved in an assessment of the hardware system needs of the city’s departments. The state’s archivists were called in to help departments decide when stored information could be discarded. Department heads were urged to include projected FOI resources in budgetary planning.

In this context of scarce resources, Houlihan and other city officials began immediately to regard “Affirmative Freedom of information”—as it was initially labeled—as an efficiency measure. Fearing that a wave of information requests would follow the issuance of the order, they viewed the affirmative approach as a mechanism for routinizing public access to the most frequently requested items, thereby facilitating departmental compliance with the order.

In addition, the political experiences that Houlihan and others brought with them to their positions led them to understand immediately both the public relations potential of affirmative FOI and the potential benefits to that part of the Harold Washington constituency consisting of community organizations. Thus, Affirmative FOI found a “home’” in the bureaucracy and legitimacy within the new administration. In the meantime, support for affirmative information was solidifying within city hall: consultations with community organization leaders were defining the content of the data that it would be most useful to receive. Not surprisingly, virtually all of the leaders of major CBOs and of coalitions of organizations named housing data as the most useful general area—more useful, for example, than data concerning crime, health, economic development, or education, reflecting accurately the state of community organizing and development practice in Chicago.

Community groups next gathered to specify priority information items in the housing area. Which items would be most useful to them? Setting priorities was necessary both because of the city’s limited resources and because of limits in the CBOs’ capacities to absorb and use information—what one organizer referred to as “the dusty stacks of paper syndrome” in CBO offices.16 To facilitate the process of choosing priorities, the city and the Northwestern group compiled an accurate and detailed “catalog” of all housing-related items of information collected and stored in computers in city departments.

Discussions aimed at producing the Housing Data Catalog taught participants valuable lessons about city-held information. It became clear, for example, that it was one thing to collect and record data for internal department use—corners could be cut, short and could be used, and building inspectors, for instance, would understand and adjust. But it was quite another thing for information to be collected with “the public” in mind—stricter standards of accuracy, clearer recording practices, or at least a process of informing the public about the “in-house” nature of data were now clearly demanded. Thus the tone of conversations with departmental data experts was often set by a series of apologetic explanations concerning the shortcomings of internally oriented information. As one expert put it, “This stuff was never meant to see the light of day.”

Put somewhat differently, the conviction grew throughout these meetings with department officials that the city organized and understood housing information in a framework very different from that used by CBOs. The city officials’ primary way of categorizing information—based on which department developed, maintained, and used that information could not have been further removed from the neighborhood leaders’ consciousness. From the community vantage point it made little or no difference which department or agency was responsible for a given set of data.

For this reason, the Housing Data Catalog reflected a thorough recategorization of city-held information into a format corresponding much more closely to neighborhood perceptions. These categories included Housing Status Inventory, Building Code Enforcement, Housing Assistance, and Land Acquisition/Disposition. Each of these broad categories contained diverse sets of data within it, but each set of data pointed to a distinguishable kind of use or activity on the part of CBOs.

Interestingly enough, this catalog soon began to revise the understanding of housing-related data for both the city administrators and the community-based organizations. For the city people who produced and dealt with parts of the information on a daily basis, the catalog both placed their own narrow slice of information within a broader interdepartmental context and led them toward understanding the very different perspective on “their” information which prevailed among community groups. For leaders from these groups, the catalog both expanded and concretized their understanding of exactly what the city did know and hold. The process of transforming city information into a resource—a “commodity” to be assessed, valued, and bargained for—had begun. And for CBOs, this commodification process began with the destruction of two opposing myths about city data that had grown naturally out of their historic adversary relationship with city hall: one myth held that “the city knows everything, if only they’d let us get at it,” and the other that “the city knows nothing that is useful to neighborhoods, so we must produce the information which we need ourselves.” The Housing Data Catalog, in contrast, began to establish a realistically complex marketplace for city data, one that defined the ground rules anew for community groups. The catalog told community groups that the city did indeed hold a variety of kinds of information (but not everything), information whose use-value varied in part depending on the groups’ own definition of priorities, as well as on the data itself—its subject matter, accuracy, and timeliness.17

Further discussions of the catalog with groups outside of city hall began to clarify not only the groups’ information priorities but also their evolving perceptions about and relationship to the new administration. They began to limit their expectations of what data government might provide, and they accepted the fact that this particular project might be stalled by any number of barriers—for example, technical, fiscal, legal, or political factors. That is, computer programming or compatibility issues could stall the project; the resources available in the city, modest though they were projected to be, could prove inadequate within the context of a tight budget; decisions by the corporation counsel could severely limit or prohibit the availability of information the communities wanted; and politically motivated opposition to the project could derail administration support.

The representatives of local community groups were cognizant of the modest nature of the initial step being proposed. They stressed the importance of “access to everything the city’s got,” as one leader put it. But much more quickly and eagerly than downtown groups, the CBOs plunged into the discussion of exactly which data items they would like to receive on a regularized basis. The prospect of “getting the city to do some of the work we have to do anyway” was immediately evident. And the specific, localized nature of the information available appealed directly to those groups’ agendas, fostering a quick and clear recognition that they formed the core constituency for tlte affirmative information initiative.

After extended discussion aimed at defining criteria for choosing their data priorities, these groups targeted information that fit their agendas, was timely and frequently updated, and which only the city could provide.

The only category to fit each of the three criteria was “Building Code Enforcement.” Narrowing the priority choice to this single major category represented a consensus among diverse members of the users’ panel concerning both the nature of the groups to be served, at least at the outset of the project, and the programmatic utility of the information. Everyone agreed that the initial thrust of the project should be aimed toward providing resources that allowed groups to do better what many of them were already doing—in effect, stretching existing agendas. It should be noted, too, that the agreement on the major category did not end the process of raising cautions among members of the users’ panel. One technical assistance provider, for instance, warned that asking for “too little” could easily lead the city to expend all of its time and resources “diddling with the insignificant” and ignoring broader questions of availability and access.

Shortly after the construction of sample housing reports based upon community groups’ priorities was completed, the proposal was forwarded to an interdepartmental group within the administration, along with what proved to be a wildly optimistic eight-week work plan for completing the necessary technical steps and facilitating the program.

In fact, troubled political and bureaucratic waters would delay implementation of Affirmative Neighborhood Information for nearly a year and a half. The delays were caused by three kinds of problems, each of which was in some way characteristic of the dilemmas faced by the new administration. The first area of difficulty involved the mostly predictable array of bureaucratically defined reservations about the program—concerns about resources and personnel, about organization and responsibility for implementation, about legal questions, about losing control of the information and its uses, and about revealing shortcomings in the operations of the departments themselves. The second set of problems involved the shifting status of FOI responsibility, with four different information officers serving during the first nine months of the Washington administration (a fifth was appointed eight months later). The last set of hurdles resulted from the political pressures on the new administration induced by the paralyzed Chicago context. The mayor’s foes, who held the power to block legislation in the city council, were alert to the political ramifications of virtually every policy initiative. So, for example, when the Department of Neighborhoods emerged as a major communications conduit between city hall and the communities—sponsoring popular Neighborhood Forums, coordinating outreach, and providing support for initiatives like Affirmative Neighborhood Information—the city council gutted the department’s budget and forced the resignation of its head.

In fact, Washington’s opposition was redefining the rules of the political game. And the new political context created by this continuing opposition redefined the tone of the administration’s policy discussion in the direction of defensiveness. More and more key administration officials were convinced that a rapid consolidation of power by the new regime was out of the question and that the prospect of four years of maneuvering and confrontation between polarized blocs seemed ever more likely. The effect of this defensive tone on policy initiatives was palpable. One department head quoted above now talked about” reform” as a “process that has to be gradual, quiet, almost invisible.” He was also the first person I heard using a military metaphor that would become a commonplace over the next year “We’ve got to fly low,” he explained, “under their [the political opposition’s] radar.”

Even within this difficult political context, however, it was bureaucratic inertia that proved most difficult to overcome. Gaining support for the new information initiative from ten different city departments, each with new leadership, all facing severe budget constraints and a volatile political milieu, proved a daunting task. Many of the bureaucratically defined objections to affirmative information concerned a well-defined and deeply held orientation to knowledge and information generally, and are likely to be applicable to situations beyond Chicago. At one point in our long series of discussions, we combined some of the objections we were hearing from the administrators into a summary package:

We (the agency/ department/ bureaucracy)

  1. know what information we need for our purposes;
  2. understand how and why such information can be adequate for these purposes, but not accurate;
  3. know how to interpret the information we gather;
  4. know what uses are appropriate to this information, and what uses are not;
  5. know how to determine who is and who is not an appropriate recipient of this information; and
  6. know how to instruct appropriate recipients in the proper uses of this information.

You, on the other hand (community organizations):

  1. cannot possibly understand the reasons we gather theinformation we do;
  2. will accuse us of gathering inaccurate information rather thaninformation which is adequate for our purposes (but not for yours);
  3. cannot know how to interpret the information we provide;
  4. cannot possibly distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate, responsible and irresponsible uses of this information. Furthermore,
  5. you (community organizations) may very well want to use our own information to criticize our operations; and
  6. you might even decide to sue us for providing “inaccurate” information.

Taken in the aggregate, these two sets of propositions summarize the most extreme positions taken by city bureaucrats.

Most often, the officials advancing these more protective arguments were either holdover employees, hired by previous administrations, or middle level “line” bureaucrats with immediate responsibility for department functions that might in fact be expected to draw criticism from community groups (e.g., the Housing Court division of the Law Department). Other officials, including a number of department heads, continued to express support for the initiative.

In the final analysis, however, the impetus for breaking the bureaucratic log jam could be provided only by the decision to schedule a press conference at which Mayor Washington woald actually announce the program. This press conference indeed resulted from the continuing pressure and mounting frustration emanating from the community groups, who were growing impatient at the delays. The groups made both the Mayor’s Office and the press office aware of their dissatisfaction, and the response was remarkably rapid. By the time the press conference occurred, nearly two years had elapsed since the idea of affirmative information had been conceived. Perhaps there was a trace of irony in the mayor’s voice as he intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who have asked me continually what I mean by ‘reform,’ let me simply point out, this program is what reform is all about.”

Reflections on the Affirmative Information Experiment

What is to be learned from this policy initiation effort? Final verdicts concerning the viability and usefulness of this newborn, as well as its capacity to thrive and grow, must await further experience and analysis. On the other hand, both the conceptual and practical efforts that defined the inception of this modest model project may well carry implications ranging far beyond the boundaries of Chicago.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear that the development of information technologies is now far enough advanced that serious and potentially fruitful attention can be given to the construction of decentralist, or democratized, information strategies. The sheer quantities of data currently collected and stored in centralized computer facilities, particularly those facilities operated by public sector organizations, present policymakers with a challenging “fork in the road” set of choices: systems design may continue to respond almost exclusively to the technically and bureaucratically determined needs for larger, faster and more efficient data operation—without regard to the likely political consequences; or policymakers may choose to take advantage of the technology’s increasing malleability to rethink the purposes and directions of information policy.

In pursuit of this latter goal, at least three interrelated political challenges we faced in Chicago may be relevant for other cities as well.

First, it was necessary to build a set of advocates for decentralized information in the neighborhoods. CBOs, along with allied city-wide civic organizations, were found to be both interested in and capable of defining their own organizational agendas and their corresponding information needs. They required some measure of technical assistance in order to expand their knowledge of exactly what kinds of information the city held, but once that assistance had been provided they quickly became enthusiastic advocates for the decentralist thrust.

The basic preconditions for developing constituencies interested in decentralizing information are ubiquitous. Large governmental bodies everywhere collect and store information about smaller geographic units. These locality-based data, covering a wide range of substantive areas, have potential utility not only for the centrally defined and operated programs they already serve but for locality-based groupings of citizens as well. It seems probable that for the variety of types of local groups, like Chicago’s CBOs, the capacity systematically to collect and store their own data is beyond imagining. But the process of receiving data collected centrally does not drain scarce organizational resources and raises the potential for planned, systematic activity based on locally defined agendas. Furthermore, as the number of local groups with access to microcomputers continues to grow, capacities for storing and using information should develop apace. Electronic transmission and even exchange of data between central and local organizations may soon be possible to contemplate.

Secondly, in Chicago it was necessary to build the political commitment to a decentralized information thrust. Most public sector bodies are legally constrained by some version of a FOI Act. But the Chicago experiment makes clear the conceptual and practical gaps separating FOI’s requirement of passive receptivity to outside requests and “affirmative information’s” commitment to active distribution.

The crucial first step for political leaders may not depend on any particular ideological predilections but may be fundamentally conceptual in nature: information must be viewed as a resource with wide distributive potential. In a time of stagnant or shrinking public budgets, government leaders everywhere, and particularly in cities, face the political fallout resulting from program cutbacks. Viewed as a negotiable resource, even a commodity, information constitutes one potentially valuable “public good” with significant potential for expansion. Needless to say, the political credit for this expansion may provide leaders with more than adequate motivation to innovate.

Finally, as the Chicago case makes clear, it is necessary to build some level of bureaucratic support if the democratization process is to go forward. Indeed, we discovered even strong doses of community-based and top-level political support for the initiative could not guarantee efficient and enthusiastic cooperation from the city hall bureaucracies. Probably many of the problems placed in the path of decentralized information policy by Chicago’s bureaucracies will crop up in other cities as well. Questions concerning accuracy and liability, ownership and control, resources and efficiency are germane to planning, taw, and other affected departments in virtually any municipal government.

Yet the role of the bureaucracies ia the Chicago case was probably skewed by a number of rarer circumstances. First, of course, Chicago’s bureaucratic structures are larger than those of daily U.S. city except New York and therefore more unwieldy than most. In addition, Chicago’s unusually stormy and contentious period of political and governmental transition provided a somewhat unusual context for policy reform—a context whose effects on the bureaucracies’ capacity to respond can only be judged as mixed. On the one hand, it is certainly true that most of Mayor Washington’s top-level bureaucratic appointees were quick to grasp the potential political benefits of Affirmative Neighborhood Information and to understand the initiative as an integral part not only of a broader commitment to open government but of a more general populist policy agenda. Further, the traumatic transition period represented a context in which policy changes were expected, even within the normally routinized bureaucracies. On the other hand, the new mayor’s appointees were themselves relatively few in number and almost universally new to the departments they served. They were faced initially not only with the predictable administrative challenges—familiarizing themselves with ongoing structures and functions, with personnel, and with workable levers of control—but also with a series of dilemmas defined by Chicago’s uniquely polarized political context.

Although a detailed account of the fate and utility of Affirmative Neighborhood Information is beyond the scope of this chapter, a few notes may be helpful. The program was in fact institutionalized within the city’s Planning Department. After a couple of months of experimentation, department staff routinized the monthly reports to community groups so that they demanded a minimal amount of time and attention.

The number of community groups receiving the reports quickly grew to more than 175. From an extensive survey of user groups conducted some months after the program was initiated, two findings stand out. First the amount of good will toward the administration that was generated by this simple outreach program was striking. From many different kinds of neighborhood groups, from virtually all sections of town, came comments much like that of a staff director from the Southwest Side: “We’ve never before gotten anything that’s both free and useful from the city. It makes us feel like a real partnership is possible. “

A second survey finding worth noting concerns the wide variety of uses that CBOs found for the reports. Most, predictably enough, used the reports to identify problem housing and t track buildings through the court system. Many groups, though, invented new uses for the reports—for instance, locating rehabilitation and community investment opportunities, or helping to prevent housing abandonment. The reports proved to be adaptable to a fairly broad range of community-based agendas in the housing area.

The usefulness of the reports led CBOs to begin asking for an expansion of the program and for the inclusion of more kinds of information. One set of groups, for example, pursued data concerning tlte city’s capital budget, whereas others worked at extracting useful information about everything from city-owned vacant land to listings of city contracts. Where these ongoing projects and discussions will lead in the post-Washington era is difficult to predict.

It is clear that opening up city government in Chicago, given the situation inherited by the Washington administration in 1983, is a task that is still far from completed. But in this modest experiment called Affirmative Neighborhood Information, and in the ongoing projects to which it led, we have at least begun to meet the challenge to create in our cities a more democratized politics of public information. One might hope that more cities will soon accept that challenge as well.


  • 1: Other members of the group were Andrew Gordon, John McKnight, Robert Le Bailley, and Eric Nyblad.
  • 2: Many of these interviews were conducted by Susan Reed.
  • 3: Interview, Alderman Martin Oberman, July 1984.
  • 4: Interview, Professor Dick Simpson, former alderman, July 1984.
  • 5: Ibid.
  • 6: Interview, Better Government Association, July 1984.
  • 7: Interview, Alderman Oberman.
  • 8: Interviews, former aldermen, August 1984.
  • 9: Ibid.
  • 10: Ibid.
  • 11: Blueprint of Chicago Government: A Study for Mayor Harold Washington by the Agency Review Unit of the Transition Team, May 1983, Executive Summary, p. 2.
  • 12: Interview, city employee, September 1984.
  • 13: Ibid.
  • 14: Interview, FOI official, August 1983.
  • 15: Ibid.
  • 16: Interview, community organizer, 1984.
  • 17: Catalog available from the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwestern University.