The recent economic crisis — and corresponding public outrage over excesses and the lack of proper oversight — shines a spotlight on a growing need: transparency. Transparency promotes accountability, informs citizens and encourages public participation and collaboration.
State and local governments have long embraced transparency. From paper-based documentation on building codes, state bidding processes, crime reports and municipal bond referendums to websites that offer data in easier-to-obtain electronic formats, IT resources are critical to making these data-driven initiatives work — whether serving up the data for internal auditors or for public scrutiny.
The state of Kentucky launched its OpenDoor website earlier this year, which provides a wide range of information on state financial transactions, including investments, tax and revenue incentives, election costs and other state expenses. Maryland followed suit, rolling out a site designed to provide public accountability for state spending as well. The Maryland Funding Accountability & Transparency site provides a tally of payments made to vendors that total $25,000 or more for the past fiscal year. Located at www.spending.dbm.maryland.gov, the searchable site displays state payment data by zip code, amount and agency. Maryland’s ambitious initiative supports Gov. Martin O’Malley’s mission of promoting greater fiscal responsibility in the Chesapeake state; he tasked the state’s IT department with spearheading the project.
These transparency efforts are part of a larger trend to transform the way state governments operate and to meet the changing expectation from citizens that governments keep them informed and take feedback.
“Openness can be securely achieved at a very low cost to government,” says Adelaide O’Brien, research manager for analyst firm Government Insights. “The whole idea is not only to communicate more openly and provide information in a much faster timeframe, but also to get input back.”
Transparency and Outreach Tools
- 311 systems
- Citizen relationship management
- Database integration
- RSS feeds
- Streaming video
San Carlos, Calif., started down the transparency path several years ago. The city offers streaming and indexed video of meetings, as well as informational podcasts and RSS feeds of city news, says IT Manager Connie Dillard. It also publishes ePackets with details from city board and commission meetings, which it then delivers to interested parties via an eNotify feature.
San Carlos currently publishes 16 ePackets. Rich in information, the material includes all staff reports, exhibits and other supporting materials that are hinted at in agendas but rarely offered up readily to the public.
“I believe that this is truly the concept behind transparency in government,” Dillard says. “In this way, every citizen gets to see all of the information presented to city council, make notes and decide if they want to make comments at the meeting.” She adds that if residents don’t own a computer, they can visit the library to view the packet at their leisure.
IT can lead the transparency initiative by experimenting with the best Web 2.0 options and by making recommendations on how best to not only present information to the public, but also provide a means for citizens to share their ideas, concerns and hopefully appreciation for the efforts of their hard-working, IT-savvy civil servants.
A robust website chock-full of financial data combined with proactive dissemination of that data will do much to satisfy citizens, but it’s only a start. The new republic is looking not only for answers on how thestate handles tax dollars and why, but it also wants to find ways to talk back.