Group Grades Online Transparency for States, Local Governments

See how well state and local governments sites promote transparency.
by | February 6, 2013 AT 7:00 PM

Many state and local government websites recently made strides in boosting transparency, a new report published last week finds.

Open government watchdog Sunshine Review issued grades for 1,014 government websites, assessing a range of criteria measuring the availability of information.

While there’s much room for improvement, many localities increased their grades from previous years. More than 200 earned “A” grades last year, more than double the 2011 total.

Kristin McMurray, Sunshine Review’s managing editor, said the group initially encountered resistance from local governments when it first began reviewing sites in 2010. Officials have since become more receptive to addressing flaws the group has pointed out, she said.

In general, larger governments earned higher marks in the report.  About 60 percent of states received a “B” grade or better, compared to 44 percent of large cities, 28 percent of counties and only 20 percent of school district websites.

Throughout 2012, the group reviewed websites maintained by all state governments, along with the most populous five cities and counties and 10 largest school districts in each state.

The group examined different criteria for each type of government entity (see methodology near end of the report). Governments scored higher marks in some areas, such as posting budgets and meeting minutes online. But many often failed to post other spending information aimed at enhancing accountability.

McMurray cited lobbying disclosure as one area of concern, with only 12 percent of city and county websites posting the information. In particular, few governments disclosed names of associations they belonged to and dues paid, she said,

Only half of the larger cities reviewed posted vendor contracts, and fewer listed information pertaining to public records requests.

Overall, school districts received the lowest grades. No district earned an “A,” with averages for 24 states below a “C.” McMurray said information on contracts and labor agreements was often missing from schools’ websites.

One of the most glaring flaws was the lack of officials' contact information. McMurray said many governments she contacted cited security risks for not posting email addresses online.

“It’s such a simple thing to do, and it really opens doorways between elected officials and constituents,” she said.

The following table lists Sunshine Review’s Transparency Report Card grades. Aggregate scores are listed for each state’s largest counties, cities and school districts. Information for each individual government graded is available on the group’s website.