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Put public data on the Web

Philadelphia Inquirer
Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

By Thomas Hylton

After years of promising more transparency in government, Pennsylvania has adopted an open records law that makes it easier for citizens to obtain documents from state and local agencies.  Unfortunately, the legislation still places the burden on individual citizens to acquire information rather than use the Internet to bring information to the people.

Today, virtually every government record is created on a computer.  Once digitized, it’s a simple matter to make it available on a Web site.  Whole warehouses of information can be stored and accessed from servers that could fit in a storage closet.

Consider local government. Most Pennsylvania counties, municipalities and school districts operate Web sites.  But there are gaping differences in their quality.  Some Web sites offer a vast array of data. Others offer little more than a directory of departments.  If we really want local records to be accessible, the state should establish minimum criteria for documents to appear on municipal Web sites and develop “best practices” for presenting all information clearly.

It shouldn’t be difficult to monitor compliance.  State officials can do it from the comfort of their own offices. 

The possibilities are limitless, but I would start with three essentials: a user-friendly budget; a list of all employees, including job titles and contact information; and the minutes and agendas for all boards and commissions, posted in a timely fashion and archived in a searchable format.

The budget might seem obvious, but most municipal Web sites offer either a superficial summary or an enigmatic version designed for auditors.  Pottstown Borough, where I live, publishes a one-page summary covering $45 million in expenditures.  There’s a 57-page document available for public inspection at borough hall, but it skips such basics as the function of each department, the number of employees, and what they do. There’s no way to figure out how much key people are paid: The earnings of the borough manager and other administrators, for example, are broken up piecemeal in various funds dispersed throughout the budget.

But properly formatted, a budget can illuminate the functions of government better than any other resource.  The City of Bethlehem’s Web site contains a well-organized budget that outlines the function of each department, lists the number of people employed and their salaries, and itemizes departmental goals for the upcoming year. It includes a thumbnail description of all government grants.  Although the 324-page document is detailed, it is easy to navigate.

The mayor’s page, for example, shows hizzoner will be paid $77,500 in 2008.  The mayor has an administrative assistant earning $48,092 and a secretary earning $39,013.  That’s it for personnel.  The office has budgeted $6,935 for expenses, including such things as $900 for business meals, $750 for business trips, and $1,250 for gifts (flowers, pictures, and Moravian stars).  Nicely detailed, to my way of thinking, and rather modest.

Although government is often accused of being impersonal, we know that every municipal function is carried out by living, breathing human beings.  All of them have names, and most have office phones and email addresses.  Every municipality should list its employees, their job title, and contact information.  Doing so will help humanize government and make it more accessible to the public. 

Finally, the minutes and agendas of all boards and commissions should be posted in a timely fashion, archived at least five years back, and so organized that specific items can easily be found through a standard computer search function.  That tells you who discussed what, and when.

Of course, these elements only scratch the surface of what local agencies can and should place on official Web sites.  But you have to start somewhere, and it’s important to recognize that eventually, nearly all of what government does is going to end up on the web.

Although Internet reporting requirements might be denounced as one more unfunded mandate, this one will likely pay for itself many times over.  Just as competition in the marketplace drives businesses to improve products and productivity, openness and accessibility drives government to become more efficient and responsive to people’s needs.

When local governments must reveal to the world what they’re doing, they may be inspired to do it better.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, serves on the Pottstown Planning Commission.






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