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Raising the bar on transparency

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By Michael Barnhart
Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
 

Last week, Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, released its 2013 Transparency Report Card.

The Transparency Report Card grades every state, as well as the largest counties, cities and school districts within each state, on the availability of information on government websites. Sunshine Review developed a checklist of information governments should provide to citizens. Using that checklist, researchers evaluated the content found on the government websites and calculated the governments' grades on an “A” to “F” scale.

The five largest cities in Pennsylvania averaged a “B+” and the state website scored an “A-.” That performance placed the Keystone State among the highest scoring states in the country.

Despite the high grades, Pennsylvania government websites did not score straight “A”s. While Pennsylvania should be recognized for the quality of the official .gov site in comparison to other states' sites, Pennsylvania must continue to improve transparency.

Sunshine Review applauds Trib state Capitol reporter Brad Bumsted's recognition of the need for improvement in Pennsylvania government websites in his Feb. 3 column, “Pennsylvania's opaque state of transparency.” Mr. Bumsted correctly highlights that Pennsylvania and other states sometimes sponsor department-specific sites, and those sites often fail to include necessary information and are difficult to navigate.

While we generally agree with Bumsted on his points about transparency and appreciate his passion for open government, his critique of Sunshine Review is off base.

As clearly stated in the 2013 Transparency Report Card, Sunshine Review analyzed the official .gov state website, as well as the websites of the five largest counties and cities, and the 10 largest school districts. We based those evaluations on our 10-point transparency checklist.

That checklist includes easy-to-access information on budgets, meetings, lobbying, financial audits, contracts, academic performance, public records and taxes. It does not include an audit of sub-state/department websites or review of Right to Know or sunshine laws.

Bumsted and other transparency advocates will be pleased to know that Sunshine Review is “raising the bar” for the evaluations of state websites in the coming year. Sunshine Review will implement a much tougher standard, based on the recognition that new technology should make transparency easier and cheaper for state and local governments.

Sunshine Review will ask government websites to publish:

• proposed budgets a week before they are voted on;

• the proposed and the enacted budgets;

• total compensation of elected and administrative officials; and

• total compensation by department.

We wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Bumsted about the importance of government transparency. We at Sunshine Review believe that transparency is not a political talking point but a necessary part of good governance that keeps government accountable to the people.

We look forward to the coming year and re-examining every state website under a more scrupulous eye.

Michael Barnhart is president of Sunshine Review.

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