As an elected official, you represent and work for the people. Government entities should facilitate public participation as efficiently as possible, being open and transparent throughout the process. This can strengthen your effectiveness as a public servant, encourage collaboration between the government and individuals, and help you more accurately meet the needs of those you serve.
Throughout the political process, elected officials should hold themselves accountable to their constituents by promoting public oversight and transparency. Even appearing to be conspiring against residents can be the fastest way to lose the trust of the people you represent.
Residents in your community should be able to track, understand, and participate in your decision-making processes without difficulty. Being involved in the political process and staying current should be easy and convenient, with any technological or logistical hurdles cleared away to facilitate more participation. In return, you, as an elected official, will benefit from the knowledge and diverse perspectives provided by your constituents.
An effective public servant should constantly be seeking to learn from and understand their constituents’ perspectives. Work to promote a culture that values open and honest dialogue and is fueled by involved and informed citizens. You should also understand that people are busy. Thus, being informed and involved should be as simple and convenient as possible in order for you, as an elected official, to most accurately represent your constituents.
“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” —Patrick Henry
Every local government creates and enforces a different body of local law. Because these rules and regulations heavily impact the lives of your neighbors and are subject to change, you are faced with a challenge: how can you ensure that they have access to a current and accurate version of the local law?
One Common Approach: A Maze of Outdated Documents
When Libertas Institute compiled data for the Freest Cities Project in 2015, some cities’ ordinances were only accessible online in PDF format. Some chapters were even in a non-searchable image format while others, including the criminal code, were sometimes completely missing.
It’s common for local governments to have unorganized, inaccurate, or unavailable bodies of code, but this can be extremely problematic for your constituents. Most people want to comply with state and local law, but when it is difficult to navigate or find, well-meaning citizens can unintentionally violate the law and thus become criminals.
A Better Way: Organized, Accurate, and Accessible
Keep your code up to date, searchable, and easily accessible. If your staff does not feel confident in their ability to regularly publish code updates, consider using a reliable code publishing software such as Municode or Sterling Codifiers. Systems such as these can make maintaining a current version of your code more efficient, while increasing easy access for your constituents.
The responsibility is yours to maintain government transparency. It is neither appropriate nor effective to take legislative action and then fail to publish it or make it available to the general public. Your work will be more meaningful if you have a clear process by which the laws and ordinances you enact are made public.
State laws are in place to help facilitate and encourage government transparency. Through the Open and Public Meetings Act, all government meetings and decisions are legally required to be open and public. While you are legally required to comply with this law, it is also important to consider how you comply.
One Common Approach: Only the Letter of the Law
The Open and Public Meetings Act requires meetings to be open to the public, publicized ahead of time, among other requirements. It is certainly possible to meet all the legal requirements without putting in too much effort. You approach these laws the wrong way when you do the bare minimum of what is required to be compliant.
A Better Way: When in Doubt, Be Transparent
Elected officials have the important responsibility of providing their constituents with the opportunity to be informed, engaged, and involved. Constituents should be able to observe, audit, and contribute to the process.
While it is possible to meet all the legal requirements with relative ease, we implore you to go the extra mile. Make transparency your default.
This can be even more difficult as technological advances are integrated into your processes. Remember that the same standards of transparency should be applied when it comes to online and electronic communication.
The Open and Public Meetings Act should not be viewed as an obstacle to get around. It is a guideline that should point you in a direction of more transparency, accountability, and openness.
Whenever you encounter a gray area, assume it is best to be transparent.
We have included a chapter on taxes in which we will discuss the spending of money at length. For now, it’s important to note that one of your biggest responsibilities will be the taking, management, and use of taxpayer money.
In addition to being as transparent as possible in your communications and meetings, you should work to be a wise steward of public funds. Your constituents are compelled to fund the government; at a minimum, they should be able to follow where that money is going.
One Common Approach: If You Want It, Come And Find It
Financial transactions are almost always recorded somewhere. A combination of state law, federal law, best practices, and tradition basically guarantee that somewhere in the depths of the city files, the answer to any financial question can be found — it’s just a matter of how difficult it is to find. In most cases, the answer is: extremely difficult.
When financial records are not openly available, any individual wishing to be informed will have to go through an arduous process to get their hands on the appropriate information.
At best, this will entail submitting multiple requests and sifting through documents. At worst, citizens could be tossed around to different administrative offices without ever finding the information they were looking for.
This is not an appropriate way to approach financial transparency.
Finally, even when financial information is released, it is sometimes done in a format that is inaccessible to or difficult to understand for the average taxpayer. Financial information should be communicated and tracked clearly and simply so that those who are paying the government can clearly observe and understand how it is using their money.
A Better Way: Spend Wisely And Publish Everything
Instead of placing the burden on your constituents to sift through and translate financial documents, ensure your staff publishes clear and comprehensive reports on your revenue and expenses. There are local governments that do a fantastic job at this and regularly put out understandable and all-inclusive reports. Work towards this goal. Such financial transparency encourages accountability and responsible spending.
The American Legislative Exchange Council writes on transparency and includes a list of all financial information that should be published.
They include, among other things, all budgets, current and historic, graphs showing spending and revenue over time, a check register including all details of checks written, status of any audits, contract information, and all grants given to non-profit organizations.
As you become more and more familiar with your entity’s finances, you will come to realize just how many expenditures a government makes. Make as much of this information as possible public, accessible, and understandable.
Transparency facilitates accountability and more responsible governance. Regardless of your position on a particular issue, you should be open and honest throughout the process. You should not keep secrets from the public.
Be vigilant when it comes to legally mandated transparency, and be open when you are met with gray areas. Not only will transparency allow you to foster more trust with the public, it will also help you to avoid messy legal altercations.
Here are the key takeaways:
- Transparency and accountability go hand in hand.
- Open processes promote public involvement.
- Suspicious, secret, or inaccessible government information breeds public distrust.