I live in a place — Chicago — where the backroom deal is considered an art form. If nothing else, it long has been accepted as the way business is done in the Windy City. Chicago is not unique in this regard. Other cities have long histories of “wink-wink” deal-making. For instance, Boss Tweed became infamous for his corrupt leadership of Tammany Hall, the political machine that ran New York City during the latter part of the 19th century.

That is not to imply that every backroom deal is corrupt. But they are, by their nature, suspicious. And citizens are more suspicious than ever before. Indeed, citizenry increasingly is demanding transparency and openness in government, so much so that a movement has been spawned dubbed “citizen engagement.”

A study conducted last year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project speaks to this phenomenon. According to the survey report, 40% of adult Internet users in the U.S. have gone online for data regarding government spending and activities. In addition, 31% of adults have used blogs, social-networking sites and other online media to keep apprised.

“People have lost faith in many institutions, including government. They want to see more openness. They want to know what’s going on,” said Alan Shark, executive director and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Institute.

The message seems to be resonating at all levels of government. For instance, President Barack Obama issued a directive shortly after taking office that said government not only should be transparent, it also should be collaborative and participatory, a notion that is in lock-step with the concept of citizen engagement.

Today, residents are leveraging the magic of broadband communications systems and smart devices to interact with government in ways that have never been seen before. This, in turn, is forcing a level of accountability onto government agencies unlike anything they have experienced in the past. Now citizens don’t have to trudge to village meetings to be heard — there’s an app for that. And after they have weighed in, they expect to be acknowledged and kept in the loop.

For example, Corpus Christi, Texas, a couple of months ago joined numerous other cities in making available to its citizens a downloadable application for Android, iPhone and Blackberry devices that was developed by Los Angeles-based CitySourced. The app, dubbed CC Mobile, allows citizens to report a wide variety of issues and events — such as potholes, graffiti, traffic accidents, open manhole covers, abandoned or illegally parked cars, and trash problems — as they witness them.

“They’re now invested in helping to operate their city and, in a lot of cases, contributing to the decision-making process,” said Michael Armstrong, Corpus Christi’s CIO, who added that about 1,000 citizens have downloaded the app to their Androids and iPhones so far. (Blackberry downloads couldn’t be tracked, he said.)

So, it is safe to say that the backroom deal — or anything that resembles it — no longer is something that will be tolerated by taxpayers or the watchdog groups that represent them. Apparently, this is a lesson that the city of Chicago still needs to learn. The Chicago Sun-Times reported today that the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications is taking fire for awarding a $23 million no-bid contract to Motorola. The agency reportedly tried to justify its action by claiming that it previously had purchased similar technology from the vendor.

It’s important to note that, if the allegation is true, the OEMC wouldn’t be the first government agency to award a single-source contract. Indeed, such contracts are quite common in the public-safety communications sector because of the proprietary nature of legacy systems. That, of course, will change once such systems are replaced by Project 25 or IP-based systems that are built upon open architectures.

In the meantime, government agencies would do well to pull back the curtain. Perception has a nasty way of becoming reality, and if citizens believe that a governmental entity is operating in a shady manner, it will be difficult to change their minds. “When governments are more open, they are more trusted,” Armstrong said.

So, any agency would be doing itself a big favor by sending every major project out for competitive bid, even when they think that only one vendor has the technological acumen to deliver what the project requires. Requests for proposal can be written in such a way to ensure that unqualified vendors are not awarded the project.

Government agencies, including those in public safety, need to understand that they are operating in a fish bowl now — and that Little Brother is watching.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.