Why Transparency is Good (or Bad) for Governments?

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Despite the recent push for transparency, this concept is not a new one for local governments. Cities around the country have been employing various methods to increase transparency – simply, be more open to the public – in their day to day practices for years now. From broad engines of information like city websites (San Carlo’s in California being one of the first) to more focused tools which display a cities’ expenditures like Your Tax Dollars At Work in Louisville, Kentucky, cities have been looking for ways to better engage their constituencies.

Transparency promotes accountability and provides an opportunity for residents to be better informed about what is going on in their communities. A better informed constituency helps create a better dialogue between residents and government officials and results in better policy decisions. Transparency is also a time saver – having an existing method of being able to push information out means governments spend less time on public disclosure. It’s also a time saver in terms of public knowledge and discussion. With the public being aware of existing policies and background to how and why decisions are made, city staff and officials can spend less time on the “history” of issues and more time on “what should we do next”. Finally, transparency also helps re-purpose information. Hundreds of reports, agendas, meeting minutes, and other city-vital information are created for city staff and officials. Being able to turn this out to the public rebrands the same information for another new and useful purpose.

There are obvious cons to transparency – it costs money and it takes staff time and effort.  Some cities have reported that they have found their IT departments to be very hesitant to the use of online tools and to allow direct public input.  Transparency certainly creates an avenue for the public to start demanding more information.  But is that a bad thing? What is wrong with a better informed constituency? In fact, some cities who have utilized transparency methods say this is one of the biggest payoffs for the investment in these tools – having the public be on the same page with the electeds. In a recent webinar hosted by the National League of Cities and the Public Technology Institute, city staff and officials from San Carlos, CA, Seattle, WA, and Louisville, KY talked about how being transparent has affected governance in their cities. They did agree that it did involve a start-up cost and it did create extra tasks for staff. But their only real regret was not being “transparent” sooner.

So while it may seem tedious and costly, local governments are realizing the benefits of being more transparent and how it is directly related to effective governance.  By being able to comprehensively engage their constituency, they are able to open up lines of communication which, as mentioned before, results in a more educated citizenry and better policy decisions.  Transparency and governance just seem to go hand in hand.