Openness and transparency in local government are crucial to operating a just and fair government.
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April 9, 2019
    Article highlights
  • Openness, transparency, and good government.
  • Technology and transparency

Openness and transparency in local government are essential for a strong community. However, the burden this can place on already limited resources can make achieving transparency difficult.

But despite the budget challenges and limited resources, openness and transparency are at the heart of good government.

According to an article in Journal of Management Policy and Practice, “Transparency is a fundamental component of democratic government and addresses the rights of citizens to know about activities of their government. Too much secrecy in government often leads to an abuse of power and a lack of accountability.”

Openness, Transparency, and Good Government

Why is transparency important in government? And what is the connection between transparency and “good government”?

Governments exist to serve their constituents—the people who live and work in the community. Citizens have a right to know how governments conduct public business and allocate taxpayers’ dollars. Governments have a duty to share this information with the people they serve, which is really where accountability begins.

A good, just government, therefore, keeps the best interests of its citizens at the forefront of its efforts and is open and transparent in the process of serving them.

Transparency International notes that “opportunities for direct civil society engagement and oversight are greatest at the local level, providing an opportunity of strengthening integrity and accountability through civic oversight.”

What are the benefits? Here are just a few advantages of openness, transparency, and accountability in local government.

It builds trust

When the public sees the inner workings of government, they inherently trust it more.

This is valuable in a number of regards, but especially with government policies (such as how specific situations will be handled); code enforcement rules and requirements; minutes from board and council meetings; and especially financial documents (i.e., budgets, annual reports, etc.).

Looking to build trust? Start here – Ballotpedia offers a fantastic 10-point transparency checklist, along with the rationale for why these items should be on every government website.

It demonstrates integrity

Trust and integrity are intertwined—you can’t have one without the other. But if at any point you need to prove this out, you should be able to clearly show all the steps you have taken to put the right government information out there and to be transparent. This becomes a proactive step toward showing you are doing the right things.

It also speaks to the fact that it isn’t feasible to post every government document and piece of information to the public or on your public website.

That’s not the goal.

Instead, you are posting the information and resources that matter most to the community, proving you are looking out for citizens’ best interests.

In the Journal of Management Policy and Practice article mentioned above, you will find nearly two dozen practical ideas for how to improve transparency in government, many of which focus on sharing critical information with the public.

Two men discuss the value of openness and transparency in local government.

It builds confidence in your government

Posting the information out in the open allows the community to read and provide their comments back to you. This proves important, as it paves the way for two-way communication, with you seeking feedback, citizens giving their input, and you incorporating necessary changes based on their comments.

It shows you are listening and you are responsive to the community’s needs. Knowing community members can easily find, access, and comment on information that affects them instills confidence in the government.

While some might question how often members of the public read or access available information, that’s not the point.

If you are wondering, “Is it worth the effort to publish information if people rarely read it?” the answer is a resounding “yes.” Transparency in local government means you are being open and honest with the community.

So, it is your responsibility to provide the information just as it is the community’s responsibility to be informed citizens. While you cannot control others’ behavior, you can control yours, and it is always better to take a “better safe than sorry” approach by providing public information.

Technology and Transparency

The rise of technology has led to a massive increase in the amount of new information that local governments create. At the same time, it has also led to new tools to make all this information easier to manage.

In order to fulfill the promise of openness and transparency, local government needs to leverage technology – not only because it makes information management easier, but because it is expected in today’s digital age.

Further, according to Open Government Partnership, “The transparency movement embodies the hope that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data, and fresh activism can more effectively assist people to hold their representatives to account, which will lead to a rebuilding of trust in democratic institutions.”

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Social media

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube provide local government with a wonderful tool to proactively share information with the public, whether you are announcing an upcoming event, live-streaming a city council meeting or communicating policy changes.

Plus, it is an easy way to post information online, especially if your primary website is difficult to update. Finally, social media taps into that two-way communication by engaging local residents in dialogue, which builds trust and fosters government transparency.

But social media isn’t a cure-all – it has very real limitations about what it can and cannot do well. That is why it is good to have a social media policy in place about how you will utilize social media, especially who is authorized to post on the government’s behalf and what they can say.

Public website

Your public-facing website offers another great tool to share information that is more permanent and needs to be searchable. This is a great place to post your policies, budget, and financial information, and other forms and documents the public needs to access.

At a minimum, making it easy for the public to find and contact each department is a critical feature of any government website. Even if you don’t have the time or budget to perfect your website, creating a clear, searchable directory of departments goes a long way in creating a culture of transparency in government.

Government workers using mobile devices in a meeting.

Document management

The sheer volume of paperwork involved in working in government coupled with the need to make it available to the public presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

The challenge? Handling it all manually just isn’t feasible anymore, nor is it a best practice in terms of public communication, efficiency, and transparency.

For example, only providing print copies via mail or in-person does little to endear you to the public. And even relying on your IT or web team can be inefficient, as the cumbersome process of exporting documents and emailing them to IT is time-consuming.

The opportunity? You can proactively provide the information the community needs, wants, and deserves by using the right tools to manage all of that paper digitally.

One such tool is PowerDMS, a document management platform that streamlines the entire process for you and drastically reduces workflow times. In particular, our Public-Facing Documents add-on gives you the ability to publish any document in our system to the public with the click of a button.

Plus, it ensures the community quickly has access to the most current versions of your key documents, procedures, and forms. This eliminates the time spent waiting on your IT or web development department to upload files.

The Bottom Line

If you aim to boost accountability and transparency in government, sharing crucial information with the community should top your list of priorities. Making this information quick and easy to find – and getting your whole city on the same page – will go a long way in building trust, demonstrating integrity, and boosting confidence in government.

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