November 4, 2016
By Erin Lathem
Successful transparency portals don’t just provide information; they share it in a way that educates and empowers citizens. One state making headway toward a solution is Texas.
Government transparency isn’t a new concept; it concerned even our nation’s founders.
John Adams, the second U.S. president, once wrote, “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right … and a desire to know.”
Citizens want to understand their governments, but without knowledge of what their officials are working on, how can they?
Nontransparent governments are perceived as incompetent and ineffective, which breeds widespread apathy and distrust of public officials. Good citizenship requires constituents to understand their representatives’ decisions. Without that understanding, there isn’t much incentive to get involved.
TECHNOLOGY’S ROLE IN TRANSPARENCY
Today, technology makes transparency easier than ever. Governments can post documents, records and announcements online, creating a public transparency portal.
But even with government transparency, there comes a point where more isn’t more. Lengthy PDFs and 1,000-row spreadsheets can be difficult for even government workers to navigate, so citizens shouldn’t be expected to parse minutes from meetings or tedious financial documents. With 91 percent of Americans wanting comprehensible information from their officials, this approach to transparency won’t suffice.
The problem lies in how much information is shared and how it’s shared. Successful transparency portals don’t just provide information; they share it in a way that educates and empowers citizens.
One state making headway toward a solution is Texas. Earlier this year, the state’s comptroller of public accounts created Transparency Stars, an award program recognizing local governments for excellence in transparency efforts. The state evaluates transparency across five verticals: finances, contracts and procurement, economic development, public pensions and debt obligations.
The program requires participating municipalities to share data with Texans in a user-friendly digital format. Raw documents are still accessible, but the platform also includes more open and meaningful visual information that citizens can understand. A complete list of local governments participating in the Transparency Stars program, sorted by city, county and school district, is available on the comptroller’s website.
For Texas, this marks a huge step forward in transparency. Now Texans can better find and understand information about where their tax dollars are spent, which breaks down perceptions of corruption and inefficiency.
The benefits don’t stop there. Improvements like the Transparency Stars program bring even more advantages to both governments and constituents:
1. INCREASED FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY
When they post financial information online, government officials are held accountable by their citizens. Improved public oversight in spending and contracting activities encourages all government officials to adhere to local, state and federal laws concerning those expenditures. And when the public knows where funds are going, governments exercise restraint when spending tax monies, which brings checks and balances to the local tier.
2. GREATER CITIZEN TRUST
By providing information about governmental activities, public officials encourage citizens to participate in more events, hearings and elections. Shared information builds trust between a government and its citizens, showing constituents they have a place in their governments’ decisions and inviting them to get involved.
Access to digestible information means people can make more informed decisions about — and have a greater impact on — their communities. Citizen involvement paves the way for initiatives like grass-roots-led ballot measures in Phoenix last November that expanded funding to 28 local school districts. The more citizens know, the more willing and able they are to contribute to their communities.
3. MORE INNOVATIVE COMMUNICATION
Transparency is all about communication, and communication must be a two-way street. When citizens are informed and involved in their local governments, constituents feel empowered to share their needs with government officials.
This creates a stronger partnership between a government and its citizens, one in which the people understand their officials’ decisions and their officials know the community’s needs. By working together, both parties can find better and more innovative solutions to the community’s problems.
BUILDING A MORE TRANSPARENT FUTURE
Government transparency is crucial for both officials and their constituents. No government wants to be seen as untrustworthy, and no citizen wants to be left in the dark about decisions that his or her representatives make. But when that information is inaccessible, without context, or difficult to navigate, citizens can’t understand it. That’s not effective transparency.
By communicating decisions in a way everyone can comprehend — through an accessible portal that contains up-to-date information on spending and initiatives — governments achieve a greater level of trust and understanding, both internally and externally. That facilitates stronger cooperation between officials and constituents, leading to more productive governments and more involved citizens. That’s transparency done right.