Sunshine Week: The State of Local Gov Transparency

ELGL organizational member Springbrook Software wants to celebrate Sunshine Week with an article highlighting the state of local government transparency. What are the barriers, and what places are doing it right? Find out below.

about transparency

Local Government & Transparency
By: Stephanie Hooley, Springbrook Software
LinkedIn

Stephanie is a Marketing Support Representative for Springbrook Software’s Buffalo Office. Stephanie’s responsibilities have included creation and maintenance of proposal materials and state contracts, website content, newsletter production, client email communications and maintenance of client lists.

“Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.” –Pres. John Adams

True that! But to the average Minuteman, today’s complexities of government transparency would be deemed minutiae (remember that word for Words with Friends).

springbrook logoWe, the people, desire access to every detail of government fiscal spending. We demand fierce accuracy, and that information be presented in an easy to understand format. We want it posted online, accessible to all, and in real time. Oh, and we want all that ASAP!

Yes, recent concerns about government performance have shone a spotlight on the importance of open government and accountability, particularly with financial information. However many local governments are more comfortable waiting in the wings. They often don’t have the manpower, technology or expertise to provide the information in a format for citizens to consume.

Even responding to public records requests is viewed as a chore by local government staff, as Bridget Doyle and Sam Taylor pointed out in, “Let the Sunshine In: Good Government & Public Records Requests”.

Tight budgets, lack of adequate staff and technical difficulties were cited as the main culprits for poor fiscal transparency in a special report issued in January by the Washington State Auditor’s Office. The report named “Local Governments: Promoting Transparency and Accountability” states that more than $2 million is unaccounted for because local governments are simply not filing annual reports due to a lack of experience and resources, and inadequate oversight by government officials. Almost all are small entities like fire protection, irrigation and parks & rec districts.

Even entities that have already filed annual reports and produced budget data often have difficulty making it accessible to the public. Many standard government reports like these are bulky, difficult to understand, and not necessarily timely. Providing them to the public in this format could result in many civic leaders’ nightmares come true: excessive outbursts of red-faced shouting, crying, thrown objects and feet stomping, not to mention the need to hire another staffer to answer the additional complaint calls.

Consequences local governments face for not having financial information available, according to that Washington Auditor’s report, may include denial of grant funds, poor bond ratings, hindrance of state lawmakers’ ability to assess the needs for funding, difficulty obtaining loans and lines of credit, and of course, constituent dissatisfaction. So Washington Auditor Troy Kelley’s office says it is committed to reaching out to local governments to provide much-needed resources for training and assistance with annual financial report filing and is encouraging use of tools, such as the state’s online annual reporting system, to provide transparency. Other states are making the same commitment by implementing innovative transparency practices.

There are places that are doing it right! In Massachusetts, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund, more than $300,000 in grants has been awarded to six cities to post their spending information online. One of these cities, Woburn, is encouraging other cities that did not receive the grant to use its model and post their spending information on Massachusetts’ transparency website as well. The state’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance indicated that Massachusetts and Woburn plan to help 20 cities post their spending information online by the beginning of 2015.

In Texas, a program recognizes local governments who strive to meet a high standard for financial transparency online. Recognition awards go to entities that open their books to the public, provide clear, consistent pictures of spending, and share information in a user-friendly format that lets taxpayers easily drill down for more detail. For that they deserve a big lone star, er, gold star!

U.S. PIRG says government transparency initiatives continue to improve. A number of state websites now publish spending data from local governments down to the checkbook level. But improvements are at an uneven pace across the country (not unlike marijuana laws). Concerns about limited staff and resources are a roadblock for some.  The time and cost required to maintain a transparency site varies depending on how clean the financial data is, the number of checks processed, and the complexity of the accounting system used to produce the data.

leslie knopw budget solution

Want to see transparency in action? Check out this webinar by Springbrook Software and OpenGov. Charlie Francis, Administrative Services Director and Treasurer at the City of Sausalito, CA, a Springbrook and OpenGov customer, shows how you can effortlessly analyze and share your budget and financial data to save time, improve decision-making and build trust in the community.

For information on Sunshine Week, a nationwide celebration of access to public information, and free resources for getting started, click here. If you’d like to read more about John Adams (… anyone?), click here, but be sure to finish your budget report first!