The Citizen's Right to Know

by Rick D. Fox
League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria

A review of information available online related to the governance of local public bodies

It began as an offhand comment over a drink. A couple of activists who had raised concerns about a proposed project were discussing how to find information about what had been discussed by their representatives in local government. Eventually the conversation turned to why, in 2015, it wasn’t easier to obtain this information on the Internet. Several months later, the question was raised again at a League of Women Voters meeting in Peoria. This evolved into the concept of conducting a survey to identify which local governments were doing a good job of providing critical information online, and which were not. In subsequent months, this concept became a formal League of Women Voters project.

E-Transparency Survey: The Process
A workgroup of local volunteers with experience as elected and appointed officials, government staff and community activists was formed to design the survey. They identified the information they felt should be readily available on the optimal public website, including budgets and proposed budgets, financial audit results, detailed documents with background on each agenda item, etc. They did so with the less active resident in mind—perhaps someone who wishes to weigh in on an issue of concern for the first time: When and where are the meetings? Who is on the board/council? What will be discussed? How can I participate? How do I get more details?

The group discussed the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA), which set minimum statutory requirements as to how and what information governments need to provide. Although they discussed other policies that local governments should have in place to facilitate public participation and transparency—such as time for comments at the beginning of meetings to allow the public to weigh in before action is taken on an issue—they ultimately decided to limit the scope of the survey to what information should be easily found on the Internet.

Once the survey was developed, League volunteers used this standard set of questions to evaluate the websites of more than three dozen local government bodies, rating how easy it was to find each piece of desired information: contact information for elected/appointed officials, meeting dates and times, budget details, etc. The completed surveys were then compiled, and the raw scores averaged. A weighted scoring system was developed, assigning a higher multiplier to the questions deemed most important, and based on the scores, grades were assigned. In early 2016, the scorecards for each government body surveyed were sent to their leadership, and the overall scores were published.

The Results
The League published a summary report of the survey results, with the following findings:

  • Many websites were wonderful for meeting the needs of a typical consumer of services. For example, several school websites offered good information to parents and teachers, and were quite attractive and easy to use. However, they did not all provide easy access to information needed to engage with the school board.
  • The review process involved multiple volunteers evaluating how easy it was to find information on these websites, so the scores were somewhat subjective. Just because that volunteer didn’t find the information doesn’t mean it wasn’t there somewhere—just that it was not found within a few minutes of looking.
  • The majority of websites provided good information about their public meetings, but more of them should publish fully detailed agenda packets—and be more clear on how to make public comments.
  • The number of websites that seem to lack Freedom of Information Act instructions was disturbing.
  • There was room for improvement in providing budget, audit and other financial information.
  • Too many websites failed to provide details on how to contact elected or appointed officials.

The Response
After the results were published, the response was predominantly positive, with a number of local governments immediately taking steps to improve their sites, while several others committed to making future improvements. A few, however, took a defensive stance and felt they were rated unfairly. In one case, there was some confusion as they had made some minor improvements between the time the survey was completed and the time the results were published, which might have improved their grade. One administrator who scored poorly stated that it would be too expensive to hire or train someone to make regular updates to their site.

Several government bodies have notified the League that they have already made significant improvements to their sites, including the Peoria Park District, Peoria Public Library and Peoria Election Commission. Although they have not been officially re-graded, a review of each showed that they have improved significantly.

Conclusion
Access to this critical information is essential. It gives transparency to the decisions being made in our representative democracy and is foundational to how our system should work. This is one of the core focuses of the League of Women Voters. The League plans to conduct a follow-up survey in the future and will be interested to see the level of progress in this one facet of transparency of our local governments. iBi

Rick D. Fox is chair of the eTransparency Project for the League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria. Visit peoria.il.lwvnet.org/2016eTransparency.html to download the complete eTransparency report.

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