Top 3 Transparency Challenges for Today's Local Governments

Lena Eisenstein
Citizens have learned many lessons from the way that governments have functioned in the past. In the days before democracy, governments were very powerful. Public officials once made decisions to benefit themselves, with little regard for the community as a whole. They had little or no accountability, and as a result, citizens learned to mistrust their local leaders. Fortunately, local governments are much more democratic now. Transparency and accountability have a major bearing on the outcome of elections. Most government officials now value citizen input.

Google and other internet search engines have made nearly every topic in the world transparent. People have come to expect the same with their local governments. Advancements in technology have given local government officials the means to engage citizens by sharing more of their important work via the local government website and also as a means to gain valuable feedback from their communities. The top 3 transparency challenges for today's local governments are transparency in strategic planning, transparency with citizen engagement and transparency in report sharing.

Transparency in Strategic Planning

The process of strategic planning is for local governments to set goals and to develop a plan for achieving them. Strategic planning becomes much more valuable when citizens are informed and on board with the plan. Overall, citizens are looking for assurance that their leaders are strong, prudent and knowledgeable. They want to see benchmarks on the progress of the strategic plan. They expect to have a context within the materials the council provides.

A local government website and a civic web portal are tools whereby local governments can quickly and easily share the budget, strategic plan, committee reports, council meeting agenda, meeting minutes, department reports and other information that's been approved for public viewing. Citizens want enough information to be able to assess trends over time. They also expect that the information will be comprehensive and understandable to the general public.

Transparency with Citizen Engagement

Many citizens like to be involved with their communities, but they just don't know where ' or how ' to do so. Transparency with respect to citizen engagement ensures openness and invites engagement and feedback from citizens.

Transparency with respect to citizen engagement helps citizens understand how the local government handles power outages, snowplowing, grass mowing, landscape improvement, crime, and other crises or emergencies.

Some communities are set up for a 311 line, which is a direct phone line that concerned citizens can use to report potholes, vandalism, car accidents and child safety concerns, and get information about other important community matters. People are using the internet more than phones lately, so it's helpful for communities to have 311 apps to keep in touch with their local government officials about the issues they care most about.

Increasing citizen engagement is a win for local governments because it provides them with new opportunities to demonstrate that they care about the issues that concern them and they're willing to address those that they have the power to change. Having a platform where they can engage with their local government is also a win for citizens because it sends a clear message to their constituents that they hear their concerns.

Social media platforms are also a good way to create transparency in local government. According to a report by eMarketer, people over the age of 18 spend about 38 minutes a day on Facebook. Every second, there are about 6,000 tweets on Twitter. That equates to 500 million tweets every day and around 200 billion tweets every year. These platforms provide an efficient way to give citizens the latest information on the weather, traffic or road conditions, street closures, notice of a mandatory boil water order and other citywide events.

Town hall meetings and public forums are another way that local governments can demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability in local government. Council members usually don't respond to citizen complaints or ideas publicly, but having an open forum gives voice to community members for public officials. Local governments should take care to ensure that their websites are updated regularly.

Local governments should also assign the duties of electronic communications to a designated staff member so that councils can maximize their use. The more interconnected local governments are on social media, the more transparent they can be. Citizens also expect that their local government website will be easy to navigate and use and that they'll be able to access it on various mobile devices.

Transparency in Report Sharing

The third way that local governments can help to create transparency is to share information with the public about the progress they're making. One easy way to do that is by sharing reports by the government's various departments online on the government website. Governments should make information available as long as the request is fair, reasonable and falls within the legal parameters of the Freedom of Information Act.

Information for the public is also important for people and businesses that desire to move into the area, so it's helpful if reports include quantitative and qualitative data. Information should be recent, relevant and easy to comprehend.

The Principles Behind Modern Governance

Governance is evolving in all aspects because of changes in the economy and society. There's a new trend toward modern governance that encompasses efficiency, transparency and engagement.

Modern governance means that council members will drive their workflows in a predictable and consistent manner. The process should be efficient and encourage responsiveness. Today's council members best create transparency and efficiency by leveraging a fully secure, digital and streamlined process for meeting management, document collation and online access to public documents.

Citizens should be able to access past and present board and council meeting materials from any device including multi-language transcripts and full search capability. Digital solutions should focus on inclusiveness by exceeding the requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Digital solutions that support modern governance provide insights and processes that provide a seamless experience for council members, support transparency and accountability, encourage citizen engagement and inclusivity, and are intuitive and mobile-friendly.

Communicating clear and accessible information about the issues that interest your citizens will help to strengthen community ties and foster engagement, which makes for a win/win for council members and those they serve.
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Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.