New York local government sites failing at transparency

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Public sector websites across New York state are either widely failing to meet the public’s expectations — or they’ve simply come across a hard grader.

According to a study released late last year from the nonprofit Empire Center for Public Policy, more than 85 percent of the sites for New York’s 500 largest counties, municipalities and school districts failed to earn a passing grade in the organization’s first annual SeeThroughNY Website Report Card.

The organization reviewed the websites between July and September of last year using a scoring system based on 10 different categories. In many of the cases, the sites needed major improvements before they could provide citizens with all the public information to which they are entitled, the study said.

Most of the organizations failed when it came to posting information about contracting policies or engagements with unions.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of local governments and school districts fail to post any information about their union contracts online — before, during or after the deals are negotiated and ratified,” the study said. “Since employee compensation makes up the largest category of local government and school expenditures, the online posting of full contract documents and summaries of contract provisions should be routine on all local websites.”

However, the report noted that many sites could significantly improve with a few minor updates. A website would earn a nearly passing 62 percent grade simply by posting the documents outlined in the organization’s checklist.

The Empire Center said in the study that it undertook this project not to place blame on any individual local government, but rather to highlight the need for advancement in how information is presented on websites. With no real guidance for what makes a good website, the SeeThrough Government Rankings aims to provide a basis by which local governments can see how websites stack up from one municipality to the next, authors wrote.

“At the end of the day,” said Brian Borncamp, a founder of Buffalo Open Data told the InvestigativePost.org, “this is all our data: It’s taxpayer funded. The onus should be on government to give that data out, not to make citizens come to them.”

By enacting changes based on the results of this assessment — most, if not all, of which can be achieved at little or no cost — local governments of all sizes can greatly increase the usefulness of their own websites and better connect taxpayers to information to which they are entitled, the study said.

“I often make the analogy between a taxpayer and local government and a stockholder in a company: you wouldn’t deny a stockholder the ability to come and look through the books, nor should you a taxpayer,” Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center, told the news site.

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New York, Open Data, Open Government, State & Local News, States, Tim Hoefer
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