Why Transparency is Key for Local Government Boards

Lena Eisenstein
People are inherently mistrustful. It's common for people to be even more mistrustful of governmental entities. The economic crisis has trickled down to state and local governments, causing them to tighten up budgets and be cautious with spending. Times of drastic change cause people to be even more skeptical than normal, especially when they're not able to understand the reasons for fast or sudden changes.

Most municipal leaders believe that transparency is a vital ingredient in freedom and democracy. Municipal leaders often want to be more open, but they struggle with how to get information out to their citizens, and how they can do it in ways that are understandable, relevant and cost-effective.

Citizens desire information. The U.S. federal Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 and many states followed thereafter with state Freedom of Information Acts. Citizens generally want more information from government at all levels. They're eager to provide feedback and they want to know that their government is willing to listen. Local citizens specifically want information that's relevant, current, easy to understand and easy to access. As society is becoming more dependent on technology, they're more willing to use technological solutions to obtain the information for which they're looking.

It's not just current citizens who are seeking information about their municipal government. New citizens and businesses look to municipal governments' websites for information about moving to a new locale. Municipalities will want to give them an excellent first impression with an informative, transparent website.

What Makes Transparency So Important?

In 2009, then U.S. President Barack Obama issued a memorandum titled, 'Transparency and Open Government.' In the memorandum, President Obama declared, 'Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.' The piece listed three key principles for transparency and openness in government:
  1. Government should be transparent.
  2. Government should be participatory.
  3. Government should be collaborative.
Today, most governments have made a commitment to being open and transparent, although many of them haven't figured out the best way to do it. Citizens desire more information about how their local government operates. Great ideas and improvements often come from citizen feedback, so it's important to keep the lines of communication active and open. Citizens are looking for accountability as to how their local government is putting their tax money to use. Knowing that their local government is making wise and prudent decisions gives them a sense of peace, as well as a sense of pride.

Have you taken an objective look at your municipality's website? Try to view it from the perspective of an individual or business that might be interested in moving to your area. Does your website give them a good first impression of your village, town or city? Will they easily be able to tell how the government allocates tax funds? Will they get a good glimpse of what it would be like to live or work in your area? Will they be able to clearly see where they can find information on council meetings, agendas and minutes? Will they be able to find reports from other departments? Is information easy to download and easy to comprehend?

How to Create Transparency in Municipal Government

Citizens request information because they're curious about things. With few exceptions, their requests generally tend to be pretty fair and straightforward. Municipal governments that strive to create a culture of transparency and accessibility open the lines of communication, which should lead to valuable and constructive feedback from area citizens.

When offering information to the public, how you present the information makes a difference in how well citizens can understand it. Information published for the public should consist of qualitative and quantitative information. Quantitative information includes facts, figures and numbers. An example of this is a municipality that reports there were 58 households without power in a certain quarter. Qualitative information would explain that those 58 households were without power due to a severe thunderstorm, and that power was restored to every home within 24 hours.

How to Make Information Accessible and Transparent

A Pew Research report on open government data tells us that only 32% of citizens use the internet to get information and data about their local government. Just over half the respondents reported that they felt their local governments were doing a good job of sharing data effectively or somewhat effectively.

Technology is your municipality's best answer to transparency and openness in government. iCompass, a Diligent brand, developed software solutions for municipal boards to provide a platform as a path to citizen engagement. Citizens can easily access council meeting agendas and meeting minutes that are clean and well-organized by logging into the Transparency Portal. Video Manager provides the capability for citizens to view the agenda and council meetings from the comfort of their homes in real time. If they miss it for any reason, they can watch the recorded version later on. Time-stamps help citizens find information they need quickly. Disabled citizens can access government information via closed-captioning capability with the Video Manager.

Using technology to provide public access to government information takes the veil off records and other data that was formerly difficult for citizens to obtain. Citizens that have the opportunity to see the inner workings of their government, including its processes, procedures, budgets and strategic plans, out in the open gain a greater sense of trust in the government that serves them. Having access to more information gives citizens the opportunity to ask better questions and to become better engaged.

Transparency and openness in municipal government alleviate concerns about closed-door meetings and potential corruption among government workers and elected officials. Open government goes a long way toward improving service delivery and creating economic value. Municipalities can count on iCompass, a Diligent brand, to deliver software solutions for governments that are transparent, efficient and cost-effective and that also support all aspects of good governance.
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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.