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Open government efforts need self-assessment

April 1, 2013

Open and transparent government efforts help to support efficiency, community engagement, honesty and above all, trust. However, many government offices implement transparency solutions, then think they are done and go back to business as usual. Yet these solutions don't always work as intended, or do but don't meet citizen demands for open information. These efforts them become fruitless, sometimes resulting in less transparency than before as constituents struggle to find information they want through a convoluted system or simply give up due to bureaucratic red tape.

Local government offices can take a page from the White House administration's playbook to address these issues. According to The White House Blog, the federal government recently examined its own efforts toward transparency and open government, looking at the goals that were established in September 2011 and seeing how many have already been reached. According to the report, 24 of the 26 commitments that were established have been successful, including establishing a web portal for public record and access to government information and the implementation of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which provided "whistleblower protections" to members of the intelligence and national security communities for the first time.

These successes provide good examples to state, town and county governments of how improvements can happen, but even the current administration knows there is still significant work to be done. Transparency efforts don't end at creating a web portal. Offices need to examine their recordkeeping policies to ensure that information being uploaded for public access is well-organized and actually accessible, all while reducing the complexity of language used in bills and other records to ease understanding as well.

According to the Argus Leader, citizens in Mitchell, South Dakota are also being introspective when it comes to open government efforts. Private meetings to discuss public matters cloud transparency, and while these issues can be easily addressed, they need to be covered for all public offices, not just town councils. In Mitchell, the school board has often been sidestepping transparency issues by holding short meetings that, while announced to the public, have avoided public input due to time constraints. By establishing clearer rules, towns like Mitchell can enhance their open government policies and establish strict guidelines that leave no room for cloudiness.

Technology such as meeting management software helps to automate many administrative processes, allowing town, state and county councils, as well as school boards, to implement the needed changes without creating undue stress in operations.