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At Sunshine Review, shedding light on government transparency

Sunshine Review, a non-profit government watchdog, grades government websites for transparency and disclosure at the state, city and local levels. How well did yours do?

Have you heard of the Sunshine Review?

It's a non-profit organization that rates the websites -- more than 6,000 so far -- of state and local governments for how transparent and helpful they are to residents.

Quite simply: is your government website adequately serving your needs?

Next American City editor Julia Ramey Serazio helpfully pointed out this week that the Sunshine Review recently relaunched its own website in a wiki format -- to boost community and indeed make it easier to find the information they offer, including grades for counties, cities, school district and state agencies, as well as the salaries of public officials.

You know, all the helpful information that's already in the public domain, yet oddly often impossible to find online. (Where you're actually looking for it.)

It's a tragic irony that in such a digital age, information transparency is so difficult to achieve.

After all, how can you accurately asses your city's government without the data to back it up?

Among the things that the Sunshine Review takes into consideration for its grades:

  • Is the current budget available online?
  • Are notices and minutes of public meetings available online?
  • Are there listings of elected and administrative officials -- and their contact information?
  • Are building and zoning permit applications accessible online?
  • Are performance audits for government programs available online?
  • Are contracts -- the rules and the actual bids -- available online?
  • Is lobbying information disclosed on the website?
  • Is it easy to find information for how (and with whom) to file a public records request?
  • Is municipality tax information accessible on the site?

The umbrella term for this transparency is called "Open Government" or "Government 2.0," simply defined as the use of telecommunications to improve governance by making all this information much easier to access -- internally and externally.

The theory: with a publicly-accessible website, information can be posted in a centralized place, reducing the cost of individual requests often required to be made in person. Plus, simplified systems internally should save money and boost efficiency.

(Eagle-eyed SmartPlanet readers know that we often cover this subject on the Business Brains blog -- because government is, in many ways, a big business.)

Unfortunately, theory is often not practice, and Sunshine Review has issued failing grades to many states and counties.

For example:

  • Pennsylvania, my home state, received an "A minus." (problem areas: lobbying disclosure.)
  • New York state, where SmartPlanet's East Coast HQ is located, received a "B." (problem areas: lobbying and public records disclosure.)
  • New York City received a "B minus." (issues: meeting info, contact info for officials.)
  • California, where SmartPlanet's' West Coast HQ is located, received an "A minus." (again, lobbying disclosure.)
  • San Francisco received an "A plus." No issues.
  • Chicago received a "B minus," with problems disclosing audits, official contact info and lobbying.
  • Houston received a "B," with problems disclosing audit and taxes info.
  • Boston received a "C," with issues concerning audits, public records and tax info.
  • Dallas received a "B," with issues concerning contracts and lobbying.
  • Miami received an "A plus." No issues.
  • Atlanta received a "C," failing to provide audit, lobbying, taxes and public records info.
  • Detroit received an "F," with problems on all counts except the budget and audit info.

How does your town, city or state stack up?

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com