Back in October, a report chock full of information about transparency in local and state governments was released by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
Specifically, the report examined public information and data posted on state government websites, as well as sampled several county, city and school system websites for the same.
The study had been requested following two bills in 2012 that sought to require state and local governments, including school districts, to post more and specific information on their websites.
There were both terrific examples of transparency initiatives as well as some results that might be downright exasperating in the Internet age.
The examples from other states were illuminating. Both Texas and Michigan have specific disclosure requirements for its school systems. If you pop over to the website of any school district in Michigan, for example, you will see reports that detail, among other academic-specific information, travel expenses of administrators and board members, all of the district’s contracts and all payments for lobbyists, legal services and public relations.
On the Douglas County, Colo., website, you’ll find a tab labeled “Transparency” that is a portal to large amounts of public documents organized in an easy-to-navigate way, with contextual information that promotes understanding. Contracts, expense reimbursements for employees, overviews of budgets, debt information, robust agenda packets for upcoming meetings, lobbying information – the list goes on.
In Tennessee, of 15 counties sampled, 10 posted agendas for upcoming meetings, and the same number posted minutes from meetings. Nine posted their current budget. Five posted their annual financial report. Only 3 posted information on county contracts. And only one posted a list (and it was partial) of county grants.
For the 18 school systems surveyed, all of them had websites, but only six put their budget or financial statements on it, and fewer still included historical budget information. Half posted their agenda for upcoming meetings as well as minutes. Three posted bids or procurement information.
The report does a good job of laying out positive steps that can be taken, such as simply providing links to information that already exists on different government websites but is hard to find.
It also suggested establishing a broadly representative state-level task force involving citizens to define standards and also ask what information people actually want or need. Financial information, yes, but they may come up with other consumer-facing information such as pollution data, nursing home inspections or professional license revocations.
Usability is critical for success, and the study quotes a 2011 report by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs: “If the data cannot be used meaningfully, then it is not truly transparent.”
In fact, one of the criteria for national organizations that rank government transparency is availability of data that a user could download for offline analysis.
Other transparency measures are:
- Is the site searchable and easy to use?
- Are there helpful graphs and charts
- Is it timely?
- Does it include financial reports, budgets and audits?
- Does it list contracts, grants and expenditures?
- Is there checkbook-level spending data?
There are difficulties. Not all local governments in Tennessee have a website. And costs could depend on what information is already collected, for example.
It might also mean a gut-check commitment by some government officials to let go of any “barbarians at the gate” fears. And it could require new discipline to change processes, and leadership to change culture.
But we are ripe for this discussion in Tennessee. And we need to move beyond why we can’t and what’s the minimum required. And instead ask, what kind of government should we be?
You can find the TACIR report “Government Transparency; Can one size fit all?” here.
– Deborah Fisher is executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. She writes a regular blog at www.tcog.info and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.