Working Together Towards Transparency in Local Government

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We welcome Mark Cavers – our guest blogger. Mark serves as the Government Reform Policy Analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute, focusing on transparency and government reform. Today, he shares with us his organization’s venture at creating metrics for government websites that officials and citizens can agree on. He can be reached at mcavers@illinoispolicy.org.

The Illinois Policy Institute promotes transparency and accountability as a first step towards good and effective government. Last year, the Institute began using the “Ten Point Transparency Checklist” in partnership with grassroots volunteers to bring transparency best practices to local units of government. The Ten Point Transparency Checklist creates a standard for local governments and citizens to strive towards. It measures the availability of online information about: contacts for elected and administrative officials; public meetings; accessing public records using the Freedom of Information Act; budgets; audits; expenditures; employee salaries and benefits; contracts; lobbying; and taxes and fees.

Our checklist is by no means a complete list, but it is a good place to build from and very helpful for giving governments and activists a common framework to work towards. Using a simple 0 to 100% grading scale, this tool is easy to use and understand. It takes the guesswork out of transparency, puts everyone on the same page, and demonstrates to citizens and governments alike how they are performing.

As a first step, local citizens perform “transparency audits” of government websites and grade their level of openness based on the straightforward recommendations in our transparency checklist. Next, the Institute works with the citizens and the local governments to help them improve their scores by becoming more transparent.

The local government transparency audits using the Transparency Checklist have so far been successful in getting governments and citizens to work together towards clearly defined transparency goals. By auditing all the government units within a geographic region, the audits encourage local governments to compete against each other for the highest score and the recognition by their communities and the media that comes with it. We’ve seen governments improve their scores by over 30 points in 24 hours, as was the case with School District 54 in Glenview, Illinois.

For over a year, the Illinois Policy Institute has been performing local government transparency audits using the Ten Point Checklist as a grading scale. To date, we’ve performed over 130 audits on the websites of local governments ranging in size and responsibilities from park districts to villages to school districts to county government.

Recently the Illinois Policy Institute worked with the Village of Orland Park to implement the recommendations in the Checklist. Orland Park Mayor Dan McLaughlin had this to say about the opportunity:

“I commend the Illinois Policy Institute for creating a format with achievable goals that any government agency can follow.”

Transparency should not be a contentious issue, and as Mayor McLaughlin’s quote shows, it doesn’t have to be. TheTen Point Transparency Checklist is a great way to facilitate cooperation between local governments and their citizens while making measurable improvements in transparency. The Illinois Policy Institute’s aim is to help citizens across the state and country bring transparency to their local governments.

Why? Because transparency allows citizens and taxpayers to get actively involved in government, it is a powerful tool for rooting out corruption, and once we know how tax dollars are spent we can find ways to solve the budget crunches governments across the country face.

Government websites are great tools for increasing transparency. Our goal is to make these tools as useful as possible. The Illinois Policy Institute’s Ten Point Transparency Checklist  is a great way for governments and activists to work together towards improving their websites.

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