Transparency Assessment for Local Government Websites Shows Strong Variability

The Lucy Burns Institute, which runs the website Ballotpedia, evaluated the websites of four local Minnesota governments using a grading system based on a 10-point checklist of information that it believes should be on every local government website.

by Dan Linehan, The Free Press / March 23, 2015
(Tribune News Service) --The website of a city, county or school district can be a data gold mine. Local governments can post online their budgets, audits, contracts with vendors, tax information and anything else a curious citizen could want.

But not all of them do, and there’s a lot of variability among local government websites.

Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis explained about a hundred years ago why that matters when he wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

That ideal inspired Sunshine Week, an effort by newspaper editors to encourage open government, which ran from March 15-21 this year.

The Free Press asked the Lucy Burns Institute, which runs the website Ballotpedia, to evaluate the websites of four local governments: the city of Mankato, the counties of Blue Earth and Nicollet and the Mankato school district.

The institute uses a grading system based on a 10-point checklist of information that it believes should be on every local government website. Its review last week gave Mankato and Blue Earth County an “A-,” Mankato Area Public Schools a “B-” and Nicollet County a “C.”

The four local governments welcomed the review, though a few took minor exceptions to individual items on the checklist.

The counties and Mankato lost points for not disclosing how much they paid lobbyists. Mankato does hire a lobbying firm, but the counties didn’t think the issue applied to them because they don’t have a contract with any lobbying firms.

However, they do pay lobbyists as part of their dues with the Association of Minnesota Counties, the Highway 14 Partnership and, in Blue Earth County’s case, the Minnesota Inter-County Association. The Office of the State Auditor estimates how much of these associations’ dues are used for lobbying. In 2013, Blue Earth County’s dues paid for $11,988 in lobbying and Nicollet County’s dues funded $3,529 worth of lobbying, according to the auditor’s report.

Mankato’s school district was tweaked for not posting tax records, though Supt. Sheri Allen said the website’s tax calculator was only recently taken down.

Why transparency?

Daniel Anderson, local desk editor for Ballotpedia, said it’s better to ask “Why not?” than “Why?” when it comes to posting public information online.

“Transparency should be the default,” he said.

While it’s true that the information on any city’s website could be found at City Hall, there’s an important distinction, Anderson said.

Getting information on the phone or even in person can be enough of a hassle, he said, to deter all but the most determined.

Information on a website, though, is available quickly and can be re-inspected.

Comparisons tricky

So how are Mankato-area local governments doing compared with their peers?

Anderson said Blue Earth County and Mankato have “pretty good websites,” with only a few recommended changes. The school district and Nicollet County websites have room for improvement, but aren’t that bad, he said.

It’s hard to make comparisons with other governments, especially because, except for special requests, Ballotpedia evaluates only larger cities, counties and school districts.

In 2012, Minnesota’s largest five counties averaged a “C-,” its largest five cities a “B” and its largest 10 school districts a “C+.”

Of course, three years is a long time when it comes to web development. And larger counties have many more employees and resources to redesign their websites.

Blue Earth County updated its website in 2012, Mankato’s relaunch is a few months away and Nicollet County has a new website.

Nicollet County Administrator Ryan Krosch said budgets and audits, both of which the review found to be missing, will be added to the website. He said the county’s contracts with vendors are public information and can be requested from the county, but he doesn’t plan to put them on the website.

The city of Mankato and Mankato Area Public Schools got credit for posting some of their contracts online, and Blue Earth County got partial credit.

Anderson said that, while he doesn’t see corruption as endemic in local government, it is harder to be corrupt when contracts are posted online.

Design important

Of course, relevant information isn’t worth much if it’s difficult to find.

When Mankato relaunches its website, it will be organized more from a resident’s perspective instead of around the city’s departments, City Manager Pat Hentges said.

“What we found when looking at websites is they became very department-centric,” he said.

In other words, local governments — as with any institution, really — have a tendency to see themselves from their own point of view. For example, cities sometimes post rental assistance forms in the “community development” area of their website. This makes sense to the cities because their housing departments are overseen by the community development department. But it doesn’t make much sense to most residents.

Many people “don’t even know what community development is,” Hentges said.

Mankato’s home page is organized both ways at present, with tabs at the top of the page organized by department, the “Government” tab, and by service, the “Services A-Z” tab.

But even when a website doesn’t have much information or it’s hard to find, Anderson doesn’t blame malicious bureaucrats. He knows that improvements happen slowly.

“Officials tend to be in local government for a long time,” he said. In many cases, the Internet as we know it didn’t exist when they started.

“We’re getting to the point where web design is an important factor,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go.”

©2015 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC