TACIR Releases Report on Government Transparency

Friday, December 13, 2013 | 3:49am

Access to government information has been important since America’s founding, but 21st century advances in technology have raised citizens’ expectations.  The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations has released a report, Government Transparency: Can One Size Fit All? exploring the kinds of data governments should be making readily available, as well as challenges that stand in the way.  Because of the differences in size, complexity, and resources of Tennessee’s state and local governments, the report suggests that a varied approach is needed to improve government transparency and provides a range of options that could help most governments improve information accessibility.

The Commission produced the report in response to two government transparency bills referred for study by committees of the 107th General Assembly.  The Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee referred Senate Bill 2831 (Ketron) [House Bill 3327 (Carr)], known as the Taxpayer Transparency Act.  This bill would have required the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration to “create and maintain a searchable budget database website detailing where, what purpose, and what results are achieved for all taxpayer investments in state government.”  House Bill 3328 (Carr) [Senate Bill 2832 (Ketron)], known as the Local Government Transparency Act, was referred by the House State and Local Government Subcommittee.  It would have required each county, city, and school district to post certain financial information online.  Both bills would have required such features as searchability, historical data, and information about “checkbook level” expenditures and contracts.  Cost estimates prepared for the legislation suggest that the bills’ requirements would be costly for some governments to implement.  At the same time, the bills’ requirements don’t address many types of public information that people may want.

A good government website should reflect the overall functions, responsibilities, and performance of the government.  Officials should strive to determine what information people want most and then present it in a way that facilitates access and understanding.  The report suggests that websites should be comprehensive, understandable, and usable but implemented with the least possible cost.

The report examines the guidelines of several national organizations that focus on government transparency.  In addition, it compares efforts by Tennessee’s state and local governments to peers in other states.

Tennessee’s local governments range from large sophisticated cities to small towns.  Their transparency—and possibly even the need for it—varies as much.  Some local governments, mostly small ones, still don’t have a websites.  Knox, Shelby, and Wilson counties, in contrast, have received high marks from one national organization for their websites.  With these differences in mind, the report provides a range of options to improve government transparency from modest, voluntary alterations to comprehensive, mandatory changes.  The appropriate choice for any community will depend on the size and complexity of its government, the services it provides, the resources available to change the information reported, and the desires of its residents and citizens.  Many governments have enhanced transparency while making other improvements in their processes or information technology systems.  The report suggests that the state might want to create a statewide stakeholder task force to define standards and advocate for transparency.  In addition, much useful local government information is already available through various state government websites and could be made available to more people by providing the links.

The full report is available on TACIR’s web site at www.tn.gov/tacir/pubs_by_date.html.  For more information, contact Melissa Brown by email or by phone 615-741-0399

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations serves as a forum for the discussion and resolution of intergovernmental problems and a source of research for state and local officials to improve the overall quality of government in Tennessee and the effectiveness of the intergovernmental system in order to better serve the citizens of Tennessee.

Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations