Local Agency Opportunities for Website Transparency
This article is a service of the Institute for Local Government (ILG), whose mission is to promote good government at the local level with practical, impartial and easy-to-use resources for California communities. See “Acknowledging Contributors” below for a list of individuals who contributed to this article. For more information about ILG, visit www.ca-ilg.org.
My agency is interested in increasing its transparency efforts through its website. With this objective in mind, what information should our local agency consider including on its website?
The answer to this question has two parts:
- The kinds of information that might go on an agency’s website; and
- How that information should be presented.
To help with the first part, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) has assembled a checklist for agencies to consider (see “Website Content for Local Agencies to Consider: A Checklist“). Whether each item on the checklist makes sense for a given community depends on a number of factors, including community interests and the local agency’s available resources. This includes the resources to keep information current once it has been posted. In evaluating these issues, an agency may want to consider the potential resource savings associated with making information available without having to be asked for it, as well as the potential for enhancing public trust and confidence in the agency.
There are two dimensions to public agency transparency:
- Information transparency; and
- Process transparency.
With respect to both kinds of transparency, a website can provide raw information (budget numbers and meeting dates) and also offer the public some background information on what the numbers mean for the services they receive and how they can participate in the decision-making process if they choose.
Many local agencies are struggling with budget cuts, and providing information involves staff time, money and sufficient site capacity. With this in mind, ILG has developed a number of resources designed to help local agencies offer general information about their decision-making processes to the public as part of its “Local Government 101” efforts (www.ca-ilg.org/localgovt101). ILG welcomes links to its resources from agency websites.
Making Content Choices
As with other issues affecting California’s local agencies, one size does not fit all when it comes to what and how information is presented on an agency’s website. To ensure that the agency is making maximum use of its website as an information-sharing tool given the particular needs and interests of its residents, ask:
- What questions are residents asking in e-mails or calls?
- What kind of information is being sought in requests for public records?
- What do web analytics reveal about the community’s interests in visiting the agency’s site? Which pages are visited most, where are site visitors spending the most time, and what terms or phrases are most frequently searched?1
Making the information available on the site is one step; making sure it is easily located and regularly updated on the site is another. This requires getting into the mindset of the average resident who may not know anything at all about who does what in an agency — which may mean that organizing information by agency department may not help residents locate the information they need. Focusing on the website users’ information needs and how they are likely to be thinking about a question is helpful; so is adding content in a way that makes it most likely the site’s search engine can help visitors find what they are seeking.
As with all public agency communications, using plain language maximizes the likelihood that website visitors will understand the information being shared. In some communities, providing website content in multiple languages may be helpful if resources permit. Avoiding jargon and acronyms is also a good practice (for more information, see “The Ethics of Public Language,” October 2011).
Including opportunities for two-way communication is ideal, if the agency has the staff resources to receive and respond to such communication. A simple approach is to include a request to “Please e-mail us with questions or suggestions.” For website areas that invite interaction, such as complaint forms or social media sites, promptly acknowledge input to assure the public that their communication has in fact been delivered and is being considered. A well-crafted auto-reply can serve this function, but a more tailored, personal response should follow within a fairly short time frame.
Consider ways to notify residents when new information is posted. This could be through social media posts (for example, updates on the agency’s Facebook page or Twitter feed) or even an e-mail. This encourages residents to go to the website to take advantage of newly added information.
In difficult economic times, making the kinds of information described here available through the agency’s website can require resources that the agency does not have. Moreover, for larger agencies additional types of information will also be of interest to members of the public and media in accessing the agency’s website. Finally, websites are just one tool available to make such information accessible to the public. Other tools include such items as e-newsletters or paper newsletters mailed as an insert with utility bills.
The key is for each agency to consider how — within the resources available — to provide the information likely to enable the public to make well-informed decisions consistent with democratic principles and processes. As Franklin D. Roosevelt observed, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”
Agency Websites: Where the Public Goes for Information
Thinking about what useful information might go on the agency’s site is a timely consideration. For example, a Pew Research Center study found that 61 percent of Americans either looked for information or completed a transaction on a public agency website in the 12 months before the study2. Specific website activities with the highest concentration of interest included:
- Agency Information — 48 percent of users looked for information about the agency or issues within the jurisdiction and powers of the agency;
- Agency Services — 46 percent used the Internet to determine what services were offered by the agency; and
- Agency Records — 41 percent downloaded forms and 35 percent researched official documents/agency statistics.
About a third of those searching also use alternate online communication platforms such as blogs, social networking sites, e-mail, online video and text messaging, while a quarter of these users want to actively participate and share their ideas and views on policies, procedures or issues.
Use One-Way Communication or Interactive Options?
This article emphasizes information that agencies might consider offering online. By its nature, the information is one way — from the agency to the public.
Agencies can also offer more interactive online experiences through their websites and other platforms, such as mobile applications. These experiences enable the public to offer input and information to the agency, as well as engage in dialogue.
For more information on using technology to seek public input, visit www.ca-ilg.org/onlinepublicengagement.
Open Government Policy
While most public agency records are subject to disclosure, the standard practice is to make those records available only upon a public records request. An agency may consider proactively disclosing this information on its website or do as the City of Lafayette did and adopt an Open Government Statement3 (at http://bit.ly/LafOpenGov).
Acknowledging Contributors, Welcoming Your Feedback
The Institute for Local Government (ILG) thanks the City Managers Department’s Government Transparency and Civic Engagement Subcommittee members for their advice on this topic. These individuals also contributed to this article:
- Chris Andis, public information officer, Sacramento County;
- Troy L. Butzlaff, city administrator, Placentia;
- Sonia Carvalho, partner, Best Best & Krieger;
- Fran David, city manager, Hayward;
- Donald M. Davis, partner, Burke, Williams & Sorensen, LLP;
- Elizabeth Emmett, public information officer, Napa County;
- Steven Falk, city manager, Lafayette;
- Jeff Gardner, city manager/finance director, Plymouth;
- Stephen J. Kimbrough, retired city manager, Corning;
- Wendy Klock-Johnson, assistant city clerk, Sacramento;
- Jonathan P. Lowell, city attorney, Pleasanton;
- Brian M. Libow, city attorney, San Pablo;
- Steve Mattas, partner, Meyers Nave;
- Gary Nordquist, assistant city manager, Wildomar;
- Gregory P. Priamos, city attorney, Riverside;
- Anthony Santos, senior management analyst, Diamond Bar;
- Grover Trask, counsel, Best Best & Krieger; and
- Jayne Williams, partner, Meyers Nave.
ILG also thanks Shannon Bowley, ILG fellow and master’s of public policy candidate at California State University, Sacramento, for her assistance with this article.
ILG is the nonprofit 501(c)(3) research and education affiliate of the League and the California State Association of Counties.
Your feedback on this article is welcome. Share your thoughts via:
- E-mail — firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Please include “Local Agency Website Transparency Opportunities” in the subject line;
- Fax — (916) 444-7535, Attn: JoAnne Speers; or
- Mail — Institute for Local Government, Attn: JoAnne Speers, 1400 K Street, Suite 205, Sacramento, CA 95814.
References and Resources
 Web Content, HowTo.gov, available online http://www.howto.gov/web-content; Requirements and Best Practices Checklist, available online http://www.howto.gov/web-content/requirements-and-best-practices/checklists/long
 PEW Research Center Publications (April 27, 2010) How American’s Interact with Government Online, available online http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1575/how-americans-interact-with-government-online
 See Lafayette Open Government Statement available online http://www.ci.lafayette.ca.us/index.asp?Type=B_PR&SEC=%7B8F2DD7DC-F9B1-40F4-AFE3-D5A6871578A1%7D&DE=%7B67E90AD8-3695-495F-994B-3A1CFDAB20FB%7D