Government Transparency: A Citizen’s Perspective

This week is national Sunshine Week, a public awareness campaign to encourage citizen participation in government and increase knowledge of how to access public records.  To support this effort, I offer four tips to help public officials take a fresh look at government openness from the perspective of an average citizen.

Tip #1:  “Sunshine” ≠ Legal Compliance

Government officials go wrong when they relegate transparency to just another on a long list of legal compliance issues.  The law sets a minimum standard, not a desirable one.

Government agencies are obligated to comply with laws regarding open meetings and public access to government records.  Effective agencies define service standards that go beyond legal minimums, in response to public interests and needs.  By soliciting ongoing public input and feedback, these agencies make incremental changes to continuously improve service to the public.

Legal compliance is a low hurdle.  For example, many public agencies post meeting agendas on the web without accompanying back-up materials.  This practice inconveniences residents by requiring them to physically visit government offices to review meeting materials in person.

Likewise, agencies often use bureaucratese and vague titles to describe agenda items.  Whether intentionally done or not, this practice is viewed as a dirty trick that, predictably, creates public distrust.

Some government boards accept public comment at the beginning of meetings for items on the agenda.  While technically permissible under open meeting laws, this practice deprives citizens the benefit of complete information before offering comment, placing the public at a distinct disadvantage.  At best, this practice signals the presence of a transparency blind spot; at worst, it indicates intentional avoidance of public participation.

Transparency is best defined as an attitude, a way of doing business – not an item on a legal compliance checklist.

Tip #2:  Transparency is a Verb

The Platinum Rule says, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”  When used by organizations, this ideal maintains enterprise-wide focus on the customer perspective.

You can learn a lot by observing how public agencies conduct their board meetings.  For example, some public boards have policies that require that closed sessions – that is, non-public meetings on legal or personnel matters – be scheduled in the middle of the public agenda.  This practice bifurcates the meeting, keeps the public (and staff) sitting around waiting and is an obstacle to public attendance.  Such policies are discourteous and clearly communicate how the public “rates” in the eyes of government.

There is no substitute for doing business with a customer focus.  Some agencies redesign websites to make public meeting information prominent and easy to find on the home page.  Integrated public meeting software solutions, such as Granicus, meet public needs and also boost staff efficiency.  And something as simple as making meeting recordings available online goes a long way to keeping the public informed and building goodwill.  Such practices communicate the agency is making a genuine effort to be publicly accessible.

Like ethics, transparency is evidenced through action.  Government organization charts typically show “citizens” at the top, in the position of greatest importance.  Successful public agencies act accordingly and strive for performance excellence in all they do.

Ultimately each agency earns the reputation it deserves through the trust and quality of the relationships built over time with the community and local press.

Tip #3:  Err on the Side of Disclosure

With a few exceptions, nearly everything in government is public.  A pie chart depicting the full scope of local government activities would show only a tiny sliver representing those legally required to be kept from public view.

Nevertheless, those who ask questions of government agencies often are treated with suspicion or annoyance.  Too many agencies treat public inquiries as an impertinent interruption, struggle to respond to public record requests and dismiss the blogosphere and social media as irrelevant or even harmful.  Some public agencies even require Board approval before staff can expand website content in response to public interest, a decision easily delegated to the staff level.

The “us vs. them” attitude has less to do with government staffing shortages and more to do with a mindset that government always knows best, public officials are the true owners of government and inquisitive citizens are troublemaking busybodies.  In short, power corrupts.

When disclosure is the default setting, it changes everything.  A hallmark of successful public agencies is that they do business with the public foremost in mind and err on the side of information disclosure.  And when they make mistakes – as is inevitable – they promptly take responsibility and corrective action.

Tip #4:  Technology as Strategy

Government is typically 10-15 years behind private industry in, well, just about everything.  Technology is no exception.  Headlines about botched government technology projects are common.  And small agencies often struggle to deliver even the most fundamental technology applications, such as up-to-date, public-friendly websites and online financial and other business transactions.

Today’s citizens expect easy online access to government services and information.    Technology must be a strategic priority for public agencies that are serious about increasing transparency.

As with all areas of organizational improvement, government transparency is a goal that can never truly be reached.  Continual changes in technology and community concerns require that sunshine be a daily priority.

For more Sunshine Week tips and ideas, go here and here.

Past Sunshine Week columns can be found here from 2011 and 2012.

This article cross-posted at WatchDogWire.com.

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Comments

  1. Wendy Lack says

    Thanks go to Pleasant Hill City Councilmember Jack Weir for acting as the conscience of the City as re transparency.

    At the Monday, April 1, 2013 Council meeting, Jack asked the right questions and was successful in persuading his colleagues to defer approval of the Mayor’s “ad hoc” committee whose scope and purpose was publicly undefined — but whose apparent purpose was to develop a new gun control policies in response to Brady Campaign lobbying.

    Here’s a link to the Contra Costa Times story:

    http://bit.ly/YRrk3n

  2. Wendy Lack says

    Government agencies get creative when they seek to avoid public scrutiny. The EPA has been caught using “instant messaging” in an effort to evade legal requirements re public records disclosure:

    http://bit.ly/Yqvn7b

  3. Wendy Lack says

    Here’s a worthwhile article re use of a government transparency “report card” for the feds: http://bit.ly/11GEaF0

    Excerpt:

    “As one Inspector General last year described some of the spending by the General Services Administration, these are among many examples of expenditures that are ‘excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible.’

    “The only way such idiocies can be stopped, and taxpayer money saved, is to hold them up to public scrutiny. But that can’t be done if the agencies consistently violate the law requiring openness with public records. By issuing [a] ‘Grading Government’ report . . . [it] puts more pressure on the feds to abide by the law, and by the spirit of representative (and responsive) government. When a group like that succeeds, it is a cause for satisfaction.”

  4. Wendy Lack says

    This worthwhile CATO institute paper (http://bit.ly/ZTcoAm) makes an important point. “Transparency” and “open government” are about government accountability. In practice, government agencies define “transparency” as online tools to deliver information unrelated to government accountability (aka happy talk with no or low political risk).

    This observation is consistent with my experience with local government. I think this is at the heart of the disconnect between people and government. No matter how pretty an agency’s website might look and how much “helpful” information it offers, if it does not provide meaningful information about nitty gritty, essential agency performance issues, the public will remain dissatisfied, disillusioned, feeling pandered to. With good reason.
    ———————————————————

    Excerpt:

    “Recent public policies have stretched the label ‘open government’ to reach any public sector use of [open] technologies. Thus, ‘open government data’ might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability.

    ” . . . Public choice economics predicts that the agencies will choose the data feeds with the greatest likelihood of increasing their discretionary budgets or the least likelihood of shrinking them. That’s data that ‘further[s] the core mission of the agency’ and not data that ‘increase[s] agency accountability and responsiveness.’ It’s the Ag Department’s calorie counts . . . not the Ag Department’s check register. And indeed that’s what the agencies produced.

    “There’s nothing wrong with open government data, but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. I think in terms of a subject-matter trio . . . . deliberations, management, and results.”

  5. Wendy Lack says

    Here’s a sad commentary on government transparency:

    “FOIA Use Grows But Transparency Declines”: http://bit.ly/10R4wA7

    Despite public awareness campaigns such as “Sunshine Week” it seems we take two steps backwards for every one step forward.