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Shining a Spotlight on Transparency

The legitimacy of government is based on the consent of the governed. As owners of our state government, every citizen of Virginia is entitled to full and complete information about how their government acts and what their Representatives do. If we cannot keep ourselves informed on the workings of our government, we cannot retain control over our government. With the election of Barack Obama and the efforts of governors in states ranging from Rick Perry in Texas to Martin O’Malley in Maryland there has been a renewed focus on government transparency.

Starting in 2006 when Obama and Tom Coburn (R-OK) teamed up to pass legislation creating, which put the federal government’s checkbook online, there have been efforts around the country to bring government into the internet age, enabling citizens greater access to information detailing how their government operates. States across the country have placed more information online in better, easier to use formats. Every politician, be they right or left, Democrat or Republican, is suddenly spouting the rhetoric of government transparency and paying at least lip service to the ideals of open government.

Here in Virginia our government has made some impressive efforts at opening up its operations. The Commonwealth Data Point service has put the state’s checkbook online and allows citizens to access information on a program by program basis. Virginia Performs allows citizens to check in on how state agencies are doing and see their success at hitting targeted goals. Furthermore, private individuals in Virginia have taken the lead on opening up government information to citizens, with non-profit websites like the Virginia Public Access Project,  Richmond Sunlight and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government repackaging government data and making it far more user-friendly.

Sometimes, though, we fail to even provide enough context for a private group to make good use of the data provided. While Virginia’s Budget Site has an admirable amount of information available, most of it is provided in a difficult to follow and hard to understand format. Similarly, the Legislative Information System pales in comparison to Richmond Sunlight, which provides the same information in an infinitely more useable manner. In other instances, as is the case in many counties and school boards across the Commonwealth, even rudimentary data on government operations via the internet is not provided.

As part of the effort to improve government transparency here in Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is embarking on a project to examine the current practices of the state’s 135 localities and school boards. The effort will, among other things, seek to define baseline standards and best practices and asses how Virginia localities compare. In conjunction with that, the editors here at Bacon’s Rebellion will, over the next several issues, provide both updates on the status of the study and in-depth looks at transparency programs from around the country. For the first part in the series we thought we would take a brief look at some of the more innovative and interesting work being done here in Virginia and around the country.

In Texas they are taking a three pronged approach as they work to shine a brighter spotlight on how money is spent. The first piece, called Where The Money Goes is a searchable database of state spending that has already paid dividends. “Where the Money Goes provides transparency to taxpayers, and we discovered that our emphasis on transparency made our own operations more transparent to us,” Susan Combs, the state’s Comptroller, said. “We were able to better analyze where and how we were spending money within our agency and where and how we could save.” The second piece, Texas Transparency Check-Up provides a one-stop-shop clearing house for fiscal information at the city, county and school board levels. At each governance level, the entities name is provided along with what spending information is available and for how long (with a link sending you directly to the pertinent page) as well as what is missing. The final piece, the aptly named Single Set of Books, is probably the most interesting and promising. Currently just a planning site this collaborative tool seeks to eliminate conflicting data and provide better tracking and standardization of financial information by integrating the data of various state agencies into a single set of books.

One area where governments around the county have been making major strides is in making available to the public, the data that city, state and federal policy leaders use to form decisions. The District of Colombia has been a particular leader in this area with it’s city-wide data catalog. The catalog, similar to Baltimore’s CitiStat program, allows the public to access hundreds of different government datasets. Everything from arrest records to vacant property filings can be viewed on the DC government website and downloaded by citizens. On the website the data is available in a variety of forms, from simple Microsoft Excel files to Google Maps mash-ups. Also, a number of the datasets are available as .xml files that update in real time, allowing citizens to build programs that use the data in creative ways.

The availability of these datasets allowed the District to launch the Apps for Democracy contest, which provided prizes to the citizens and government agencies that made the most innovative use of the data DC is providing. Winners included the program, which allows DC residents and prospective residents to enter their address and access a wealth of information about their neighborhood. By drawing on the datasets DC provided provides users with information on the nearest grocery stores, banks, gas stations and other common errand locations to their home, recent crime near their address, demographic data on their neighbors and information on the nearest public service locations, such as fire stations, police stations, hospitals and libraries. All in all the Apps for Democracy contest cost DC $50,000 and returned 47 web, iPhone and Facebook applications with an estimated value to the city of $2.6 million. DC isn’t alone in provide government data to the public, as the federal government has also picked up on the trend and has launched, which provides federal government data to citizens.

Virginia isn’t entirely lacking in the ideas department either. LoudounPedia, a wiki run by the Loudoun county library system, has all manner of governmental and community information. More importantly, by choosing a wiki as their format, the library has enabled citizens to take ownership of this resource as members of the community are able to add their own knowledge and experiences. Additionally, the city of Norfolk has created its own YouTube channel a great use of technology to get information out to citizens.
By providing usable data governments allow citizens to improve their quality of life and make government more efficient.

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