Friday, October 30, 2009

John Ackerman sets a new standard in Government transparency

In case you haven't noticed, young people are bursting onto the scene in national, state and local politics. Barrack Obama and Aaron Schock aside, voters locally have shown a strong affinity towards younger candidates as well. Ask 10 people and you may get 10 different answers as to why this is occurring, but in my opinion, one reason is because younger people have the desire and the skills to utilize modern technology to connect with voters.

Enter John Ackerman, Tazewell County Board member of the Third district. We met John at the Pekin Marigold Festival Parade, where his parade entry was right behind ours. We struck up a nice conversation, and I couldn't help but think how much he reminded me of, at the risk of sounding trite, Aaron Schock.

Shortly thereafter I merited his mailing list, and was promptly hooked. John sends out e-mail updates to a data base of constituents once or twice a week. He also has a sophisticated website that is a virtual directory of all things Tazewell. His newsletter updates include not only remarks on county issues, agenda items and impending votes, but he also promotes local events, businesses and fundraisers. He works hard to be a "full service" county rep by staying abreast of local issues, but also a relentless cheerleader for Tazewell County.

John is a model of Government transparency. No doubt he has had to work through a few bugs and fight some windmills, but suffice it to say whether we are ready or not, John's methodology is here to stay. In today's age of information on demand, 24 hour news and anyone-with-a-keyboard-and-half-a-brain-is-a-journalist mentality, established politicians will have no choice but to adapt.

In the midst of John's many civic, professional and personal responsibilities (he and his wife, Maria, are expecting their first child), I was able to get him to stop for a few moments and reply to a few of my burning questions. Below they appear only slightly condensed.

Q. John you stay in close contact with your constituency through e-mail updates, on-line newsletters and a comprehensive website. In general, how has this been received by the public?

JA: From the feedback I have been receiving from other elected officials and constituents, I think they are happy with the easier availability of information the website provides.

Shortly after it was up and running, a fellow Tazewell County Board Member told me that he was looking for the contact information of a local municipality in District Three. He joked that using my website was easier than the phone book.

As far as my constituents, with Tazewell County currently not having a County Board website (one is on the way in the next month) many have been looking for information and not finding it. Even if what they are looking for is not on the website, I make it well known that they can ask me and I will get it for them.

Q. How long have you been doing this and what gave you the idea?

JA: The Website went live on March 21st, 2009, and is part of a pledge to increase communication with the County Board. The Tazewell County Board Website was still being discussed but I decided that I wanted to move more quickly to get the information out to the people of my district and the county.

The website also developed from a need to more accurately and more timely get information out to my constituents concerning past action and upcoming issues and concerns. In the past, politicians have had to rely on the media to not only accurately understand and translate our message but to also generate interest in what we want to discuss.

With the Newsletter that I have attached with my Website, I have the freedom to get my message to my constituents out timelier, in my words, in full context, whenever I want to. This freedom also allows me the opportunity to address issues being discussed in the media in the same way. An added bonus is that by adding the media to this Newsletter, they have the option of using or printing my Newsletters in their media with little to no hassle.

I really feel we have a problem with the general public's expectations of their elected officials being too low. Too many believe that the job involves showing up to a meeting and placing a vote. In the end I feel that the purpose of representative government is not just to place votes, but also to gather information and explain it back to the individuals that have elected you. It is time for us to remember that the people are the employers and the boss, not the elected official. The website helps me with this and is one additional tool I can and do use to meet their expectations.

Q. Have you had any problems with this type of communication and what advice would you give other young politicians running for office.

JA: As far as problems, I would have to say that there have been some that have not felt comfortable with the website. Some have been bothered by the fact that this is currently the only source for some of this information since the County does not have a website yet. Others have questioned the need for this level of availability. To both of these concerns, I feel they will become less relevant as this technology becomes more common practice rather than such a novelty. If you look at other parts of the country, other areas where technology is more a part of the daily life, websites like mine are the norm.

In Chicago, many County and City Officials have both an Official Office Website and a Political Website. We are already seeing this technology locally used in campaigns, so it is only a mater of time before it becomes the norm.

As far as advice, I would strongly recommend getting started with a website early in the process. Having a site ready to go at day one in a campaign and carrying it throughout the process and into the elected office will help guarantee a familiar and consistent location for information and outlet for communication. I can think of hundreds of examples of how this has helped me and none where it has hurt me. Communication is always a good thing.

End interview

I have to say, I agree with him on pretty much all points. He reminds me of my friend, Laura Petelle, newly elected member of the District 150 School board, who shares and executes a similar philosophy via her blog. Communication and transparency from government officials is here to stay. Adapt or die. It can be cumbersome. It can be inconvenient. It can be downright ugly. But the John Q. Public has already had a taste of it and they ain't going back. From nearly every perspective, the informed voter rightfully feels that politicians in general have squandered their good will and as taxpayers, they want back in control.

Here are some words of advice to the more established guard. There is plenty of room in the political rainbow for all competent and honest public servants. Each individual, young or old, male or female, Democrat or Republican - brings their own skills set to the table. For the more seasoned politician who has been around the block or two, it may be wisdom, experience, understanding. Gently share your expertise and combine your talents with your less experienced albeit energetic counterparts and perhaps, together, we can work to improve the many serious issues facing our community and our nation.
You can sign up to recieve Mr. Ackerman's on-line newsletter by submitting your e-mail address on his homepage at www.johncackerman.com

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