Online Transparency In Virginia

Brent Finnegan -- February 5th, 2010

Are local governments doing a good job making the information you have a right to know publicly available on their websites? According to Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, “Localities in Virginia were generally dismal in their efforts at online financial transparency.”

How do Harrisonburg and Rockingham County compare to other local governments when it comes to budgetary transparency?

The Jefferson Institute recently conducted a survey comparing the information available on local government websites. Their transparency grading scale [PDF] takes into account various factors, such as the level of detail in local budget information, and interface navigability.

Harrisonburg scored 40 out of 100 points (ranking 50th of 134), while Rockingham County scored 35.

The highest grade in the survey was 80 out of 100 points and only 20 localities scored more than 50 points. On the other side 22 localities scored zero points and another 13 scored fewer than 20 points . . .

Generally speaking, high population counties scored the best, with the Northern Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William leading the way, while 23 counties and cities scored zero in this analysis. “Scoring zero means that the citizens have no online ability to see how their tax money is being spent. In this day and age that is really inexcusable,” said [Jeremy Beales, a Visiting Fellow at the Thomas Jefferson Institute].

Harrisonburg Public Information Officer Miriam Dickler responded to the release:

Our limitations for posting more information on the website is largely time and resources. While we probably already generate most of the information/reports that are being referenced in the report, it would take staff time and resources to properly post, update and maintain the on-line information, and we don’t currently have excess staffing capacity to do that.

While we now have a web editor again after a long spell without one, her primary job is overall maintenance and not updating departmental information. That responsibility falls to departments themselves and none of our departments have an individual who is tasked solely with web maintenance. We are happy to provide information to individuals who might contact us for something that they cannot find on our website.

Should we be directed to provide more information on the website by council, certainly we would do that.

Have you found (or tried to find) information about local budgets on the Harrisonburg or Rockingham County website? What has your experience been?

(Thanks, Karl)

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3 Responses to “Online Transparency In Virginia”

  1. JGFitzgerald says:

    I thought about this topic while reading the thread about legal notices. Both bring up the same question: How would we do this if we were starting from scratch? We wouldn’t put the legal ads exclusively in newspapers, if at all, and we wouldn’t believe that putting budget info on line was a lagniappe. It would be part of the main meal.

    The obstacles are habit, state of mind, and a Freedom of Information Act rooted in its paper history.

    Many of the department heads in Virginia’s local governments began their careers before on-line information was possible. It’s easy to forget (and next to unknown for some age groups) that the web browser is only 17 years old. (To paraphrase an early computer scientist, when civil engineering was that old, the right angle hadn’t been invented yet.) The web will always be something new to a lot of these people.

    The rush, the stampede, to get everything on line over the last ten years has not been coupled with any move to reduce paper flow and dependence on paper copies of government documents. If saying “Paper-free” would do it, it would already be done. But there are few high-ranking people in local government in most localities who didn’t grow up with paper. Until there is an actual reduction in paper-flow (paper-flow that takes actual physical motions by people making an hourly wage) web work will have to be on top of what’s already being done. Opening up government to people who grew up with the Internet will be viewed as an excess duty, not a general one.

    Local governments are not institutions that we want to change too quickly. Some of that is good and some of it is bad, but transparency goes hand in hand with not making any change so quickly that it can’t be fully examined while it’s taking place. But there is a relatively simple change that would force governments to change the way they do business and the way they think about documents being on line. And it wouldn’t cost a dime.

    Open local government file servers to the web. Not the web server, the carefully designed pages with links and buttons and templates, but the folders where people actually store the hundreds of pages of spreadsheets and documents produced monthly.

    Allow separate servers for things exempt from the FOI (personnel and police work, for instance) but put everything else out there, and remove the exemption for “working papers,” which keeps the public from learning anything until the locality’s managers think it’s time.

    This is the spirit of the FOI, which is routinely violated and ignored by even the best people in local government. A document is supposed to be open to the public unless government can prove it’s exempt. We should be able to assume that for all the documents we own. As it stands now, you have to know a document exists and be able to ask for it by name or topic. It’s more like a pharmacy line than a library. The person you’re asking can and often will come up with a way to say no. In the library model, you browse what’s on the shelves and decide what you want to read. You could click on the budget folder and see what the city manager sees. Government now goes so far in the other direction that some managers will not let the public see anything until the council or board has seen it. That exemption is routine, but not part of the FOI.

    Requiring that a document be asked for by name or topic is often cited as a way to avoid “fishing expeditions.” That may have been relevant when it took a government worker’s time to find and copy the document, and when it was costing the citizen up to a dollar a page. But those factors are irrelevant when you’re browsing a file server. There’s no reason citizens shouldn’t be allowed to fish, indiscriminately or not, in their own stream. Someone interested in sidewalk improvement could search for the word “sidewalk” to find out what government is doing and what’s being considered in that area.

    If this change were enacted, most localities in the state would create the secure servers and routinely put even the most mundane documents on them. They would have to be publicly and frequently challenged on that. But after a few years and a few embarrassments, localities could learn to use the web to share documents the way the FOI says they should now.

  2. Lowell Fulk says:

    Bubby, Sam, and other interested parties, click here to get contact information for members of the Rockingham County School Board.  Call or email or write and ask them for the information you seek.

    A very important part of their job is to advocate for, and provide a better understanding of how things work in, the Rockingham County Public Education System.

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