Better Governing Through Online Transparency

In President Obama’s January 21st memorandum, “Transparency and Open Government”, he conveyed our nation’s rejuvenated commitment to openness and transparency by writing:

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. […] [Government] should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.”

With billions of dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) making its way to cities and counties, local governments must remain committed to delivering unprecedented levels of transparency and openness.

Citizens have the right to know how tax dollars are being used and it’s the government’s responsibility to deliver this information in an easily accessible format—and what’s more readily accessible than the great digital frontier of the world wide web?

No matter how much—or how little—ARRA funds you receive, allocating a portion of your website to keep citizens informed of requests and plans for funds is the first step towards transparency.

The City of Alexandria, Virginia developed www.Alexandriava.gov/Recovery, to promote the ARRA funding requested by the city, how much they will receive and how the funds will be used. Visitors are greeted by a video from Mayor William D. Euille who discusses the importance of the website and information provided. Users have access to city issued ARRA press releases and a comprehensive list of FAQs.

The city also provides detailed PDF reports of potential projects submitted for funding, potential funding sources and a work flow chart for implementation of ARRA funds.

It should be noted that you don’t have to create an entirely new website to provide basic transparency about ARRA funding. Anytime there is a request, plan, or announcement regarding your ARRA funds, pull it out of the meeting minutes or archives, and place it on a page created specifically for the stimulus bill. By doing this, you will better serve your citizens, without having to invest a substantial amount of time or money.

As mentioned in President Obama’s memorandum, government needs to embrace new technologies to make information and decisions readily available to the public.

The City of Columbia, Missouri’s website is an excellent example of using technology to provide citizens the ARRA information they need. The City’s “Transparency in Local Government” site features the basics, including: goals of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as outlined by the President, press releases from the City and links to other Recovery Act websites.

What’s exciting about the City of Columbia’s transparency page is their Filtered Projects Report. This filterable report outlines all of the projects for which the City has requested funds; the amount requested; what federal agency and program the funds are being requested from; the status of each request; and even details how many jobs will be retained or created with each request. The report is also date-stamped so users know if they are viewing the most up-to-date information.

The City of Madison, Wisconsin’s Federal Stimulus website, www.cityofmadison.com/federalstimulus, is encouraging citizens to provide their thoughts on the best use of stimulus funding with on online form. They also offer live—and on demand—online broadcasts of stimulus package briefings by the Board of Estimates.

Unlike those cities and counties that unwittingly hide their ARRA plans in council or committee minutes and agenda, these cities have brought their spending to the forefront. By informing constituents on the use of their tax dollars and encouraging feedback, these cities should be applauded for their commitment to open and transparent government.

Read more about e-government trends and best practices on the e-Gov Gateway blog.

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Profile Photo Ari Herzog

Let’s not confuse transparency with citizen engagement; two different foci in my head. One is about broadcasting information in lieu of withholding it; the other is about crowdsourcing and collaborating.

Recovery.gov is transparency. Soliciting feedback is no different than a suggestion box on the city clerk’s counter. The question is when a suggestion is received and read whether the writer will be contacted and be engaged in dialogue.