The Franklin Center’s citizen watchdog initiative, Watchdog Wire, recently observed Sunshine Week, a nationwide event all about two of the most important building blocks of good government: transparency and accountability.
“Sunshine Week is important because it raises awareness of our increasingly opaque government, and also shows citizens ways that they can help fight to maintain an open, accountable political system on all levels of government,” says Rachel Swaffer, Outreach Associate for Citizen Watchdog.
“The fight for transparency never stops,” she notes, “but this one week helps to focus our efforts across the movement, so we can get transparency trending!”
And get it trending they did.
In addition to a tweet-up with OpenSecretsDC – one of their most highly engaged online events to date – Watchdog Wire asked their citizen journalists to audit their city, county, or township website. By week’s end, 21 citizens completed a web-form audit of their local government website, and 19 others wrote up full posts on their audits for WatchdogWire.com. Another five citizen watchdogs sent in an email audit to the Watchdog Wire account.
The audits were simple – a quick and easy webform and rubric that laid out a clear process for analyzing a local government website. Watchdog Wire designed them so that any engaged citizen could do one to increase his or her knowledge of local government, but they also made sure the audit would effectively evaluate the level of government transparency online.
“They found that county and township websites are generally doing better at making public information accessible, and providing meaningful content for citizens,” wrote Watchdog.org national reporter Matt Kittle, but he added that “real hurdles to transparency remain.”
These hurdles are significant, Kittle explained, because they keep citizens from obtaining vital information about the government that exists only because of their tax dollars.
“All in all, the local government websites tended to be pretty good on the basics,” says Swaffer. “However, many emphasized ‘looks’ over content, and very few of the websites included information on submitting an open records request.”
In New Jersey, state editor L. Tierney found that the quaint, suburban town of Maplewood often fails to post transcripts of public meetings. It also lacks clear information about New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act, which helps promote an informed citizenry by setting a clear process by which anyone may request information.
Solid information on contracts, public employee wages, and other taxpayer-critical data was also lacking on many local government sites.
For example, Watchdog Wire-Nevada editor Michael Chamberlain found that Clark County, which includes the majority of Nevada’s population, provides little information on its website related to supply contracts. Chamberlain also found that Clark doesn’t include wage and salary information on current employees, as well as pensions and benefit information on retirees.
Watchdog Wire-Colorado editor Ben DeGrow found a similar situation in one of Colorado’s biggest cities, Arvada.
“Excluding the stipends to council members, any information on Arvada government employee compensation, including salaries, benefits, and pension earnings, is absent. Further, searches for public access to vendor contracts and bid processes came up empty,” DeGrow reported.
“It’s 2014 – there’s no excuse for local governments not to have easy access to public information online!” Swaffer summarized, “So we unleashed our army of citizen watchdogs.”
If the information about local government doings is made public and accessible (as it should be!) then there’s no reason for such a space to be the domain of journalists exclusively. The ability to make an open-records request can be a particularly powerful tool for citizens to use, and it’s something Watchdog Wire stresses when working with citizen activists.
Mary Ellen Beatty, Watchdog Wire’s director of citizen outreach, urges citizens not to be afraid of such tools. With resources from Watchdog Wire, like open-records guides for each state or a webform for auditing government websites, anyone can shine the powerful light of transparency in their states, counties, and cities.
“This is a national conversation we need to have to make sure our government is giving us the information we need to have and that we’re using our resources wisely,” she said.