Vision Blog

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What Does It Mean for Local Government to be Transparent?

by Tom Humbarger
Post Date:08/26/2015

Information about who governs an agency, how they conduct public business and spend taxpayer’s money must be readily available and easy to understand. That’s government transparency in a nutshell.

What is Governmental Transparency?

According to Ballotpedia, an interactive almanac of U.S. politics, transparency is“…a government's obligation to share information with citizens. It is at the heart of how citizens hold their public officials accountable.”

Transparency in government is not a new issue. John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote about the Right to Knowledge in 1765. “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right and a desire to know.”

“Open government” is another commonly used term that embodies the goals of transparency, participation and accessibility. Open government encourages the use of modern technology and other tools to give citizens better visibility and easier paths to engagement, and also to create economic value, and improve service delivery.

Building Transparency is Challenging

Although it sounds simple, building transparency, openness and trust for a government agency is a challenge. According to Pew Research study on open government data, only 32% of adults use the Internet to get information and data about their local government. But just 52% of the respondents say that local governments share data effectively or somewhat effectively which means that the remaining 48% do not think that government is doing a good job at all.


A Checklist for Website Transparency for Governments

So, what can local governments do to improve transparency? Ballotpedia has developed a 10 point transparency checklist which identifies features that citizens should be able to find when then visit the website of their local government agency. This is a great starting point to use to measure transparency within your own agency.







  • current year’s budget
  • bonus points for showing previous three years’ budgets in numerical and graphical formats which would highlight trends in government spending
  • more bonus points for sharing a checkbook register


Open meeting laws

  • ·notices about the time and place of all public meetings of governing boards and commissions
  • meeting agendas and meeting minutes must also be posted for past and future meetings
  • rules for providing public input


Elected officials

  • ·names and contact information of elected officials
  • additional information should include term, party affiliation (if elected in a partisan election)
  • committee appointments
  • any financial disclosures or conflict-of-interest statements required by the city


Administrative officials

  • list of key administrators and their contact information, including phone number and email addresses


Building permits and zoning

  • building permit and zoning applications should be available for download online
  • ideally, citizens should be able to submit applications and track process



  • copies of performance and financial audits posted for three years
  • evaluations of the performance of specific agencies or commissions



  • rules governing contacts posted online
  • bids and contracts for more than $10,000
  • any vendor campaign contributions should be posted with the contract



  • disclosure of membership and dues paid for any government sector lobbying groups
  • database of registered lobbyists


Public records

  • the name of open records or FOIA compliance officer
  • contact information, email and phone number, for person who
  • instructions and forms for submitting a request for information



  • information about all taxes levied by the government
  • information on how to appeal property tax assessments, if unit is partially funded by property taxes


In a follow-up blog post, we will provide examples of website transparency in action from our clients.

Other Transparency Resources

To learn more about governmental transparency and open government, check out these resources:

At Vision, we specialize in helping agencies research and implement user-focused improvements, and are always happy to discuss your particular needs. Request a free consultation now.


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