- Note: Ballotpedia staff conduct these evaluations once per quarter, as requested. Please email us to request an evaluation. We do not conduct comprehensive, annual evaluations for all municipalities.
This list was created to encourage open government, a political doctrine which holds that the business of government and state administration should be opened at all levels to effective public scrutiny and oversight. President Obama has stated on Whitehouse.gov that his administration endorses the concept of government transparency.
My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government...Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.
Sunshine Review approached transparency with an attitude that "if it's there, then it's transparent." To decide what should be on the checklist, we sent out surveys to various organizations, such as the Goldwater Institute and compiled the most common items on the list of responses to create our transparency checklist. Now, we are grading all levels of government based on these ten basic items, items we feel should be addressed and provided by every governmental entity's website.
The "My Government Website" project
The "My Government Website" Project was a project of Sunshine Review, the Sam Adams Alliance and people from all around the country to collaboratively determine the extent to which government-managed websites contain the information people need.
While steps like the Freedom of Information Act have lead to a more open government, Sunshine Review believes that the responsibility of providing information falls on the government, which should participate in affirmative disclosure. In regards to this, SR has established 10 areas listed below that provide a baseline of information government entities should provide online. The checklists are unique to the entity being evaluated with school districts and statewide website having a different set of criteria. The most common factors of the transparency checklist are listed below with the rational for why these items should be on every government website. However, as technology advances so will these lists, adapting to the needs of the people.
If you want an example of any of these points, check out Anderson County, SC's website.
- Budgets: The website should include the current budget. Bonus points if the website shows the budgets for previous years and a graph showing increases or decreases over time to help citizens evaluate and understand trends in local government spending. The checkbook register and credit card receipts should also be posted.
- Rationale: Budgets show the big picture of what goals and priorities the government established for the year. Budgets details also serve as a way for taxpayers determine how the government performed in relation to past years.
- Open meeting laws should include notices about public meetings of its governing board and minutes of past meetings. Also check for meeting agendas for future and/or past meetings.
- Rationale: Meetings are one of the few ways the public can engage in true dialogue with representatives. Given the reality of busy schedules, governments should offer an alternative to meeting attendance by posting meetings, agendas, locations and minutes on their website.
- Elected officials should include names of elected officials and their contact information, including email addresses. Also we should be able to see an elected official's voting record.
- Rationale: Officials are elected to represent their constituents. In order to do so effectively they should be engaged in regular dialogue and be as accessible as possibly by providing a variety of ways to be contacted.
- Administrative Officials should be listed on government websites. The website should include the names of key administrators and their contact information, including e-mail addresses.
- Rationale: Administrative staff are knowledgeable resources, provide constituent services and often enforce ordinances. Because of these roles it is imperative for them to be available to constituents by providing contact information to the heads of each department and not just general information.
- Building permits and zoning: At the very least applications should be available to be downloaded online. In addition, constituents should be able to submit applications and track the process online.
- Rationale: Almost all government application processes are already digitalized. By facilitating the process online government should cut down on cost and time barriers as well as improving communication and service to their constituents.
- Audits: The website should include regular audit information including: report results, audit schedules and performance audits for government programs.
- Rationale: While budgets give the big picture to constituents, an audit reveals how well the government performs on their goals. An audit reveals how closely elected officials kept their promises and enable constituents to hold them accountable.
- Contracts: The website should include rules governing contracts posted online;including bids and contracts for purchases over $10,000 and the vendor's campaign contributions posted with contract.
- Rationale: Contracts should be available for review so the people can evaluate if the contract was a no bid replacement and/or if the government chose the best solution for its constituents.
- Lobbying: If the unit of government belongs to any government sector lobbying associations that it helps to fund by paying association or membership dues, that information should be disclosed on the government unit's website.
- Rationale: Almost all government entities have lobbyists on retainer or are members of an association that lobbys on their behalf. This information should be disclosed to constituents, so they can make sure what is being lobbied benefits the community.
- Public records: The website should include the name of the person who is in charge of fulfilling open records requests, along with contact information for that person.
- Rationale: The government is obligated by law to answer FOIA requests. By posting an individual contact, it creates an avenue which should ease the way for constituents and displaces ill-will often caused by a confusing process.
- Taxes: The website should include a central location for all tax information, including state "fees" such as drivers' licenses; Tax documents for all elected officials and each agencies sources of revenue.
- Rationale: Tax information should be available to those looking to move or sell residences in their district. Disclosing tax burdens accurately reflects the cost of living.
Requesting an evaluation
To request that a city or school district be evaluated, please email Ballotpedia's Research Team.
It is helpful to Ballotpedia staff if you include the following:
- a link to the website
- links to where the information that will be evaluated (see above list) can be found on the website
Problems with a government entity's transparency score
If you find that any of the information that is posted on your government entity's website is false, not up-to-date, or has been taken down please email Ballotpedia's Research Team and let us know. We'll retract the point from the government entity's score and lower its transparency score.
However, we do not take away points due to wasteful spending, unanswered FOIA requests, or other "offline" activities—our scores are based solely on the government entity's website.
- Transparency checklist possible additions
- Government Transparency
- School transparency checklist
- State transparency checklist (2008-2012)
- Transparency checklist templates
- Portal:My Government Website
- Sunlight Foundation, List of transparency websites
- Center for Fiscal Accountability, Government spending websites
- Measuring transparency
- Useful websites for state government transparency
- Checklists, eptitude(sic), how to get things right
Sunshine Review's transparency checklist
- Transparency Website Checklist, TexasISD.com (dead link)
- "York Co. school district websites get (mostly) bad grades; one takes up the challenge," Record Tracker, February 10, 2011
- "State, local government transparency slowly improving, says watchdog," CivSource, February 3, 2011
- County Website Receives “Sunny Award” For Transparency, Maui Now, March 30, 2012
- Sunshine Review Launches Premier Online Government Transparency Wiki, January 25, 2011
- Sunshine Review completes transparency evaluations for all 3,140 counties in the United States, April 3, 2009 (dead link)
- Open government is an exception to the rule in Illinois, State JournalRegister, May 27, 2009
- W.Va Counties Receive F in Transparency, West Virginia Watchdog, September 22, 2009
- Georgia counties fail on transparency, August 2, 2009
- "Sunshine Review gives Iowa government a B in transparency," Daily Iowan, March 6, 2012