By Sarah Rich
Florida, Virginia and Illinois may be considered the most transparent states in the nation after jurisdictions within their borders won the most 2013 Sunny Awards – given to government agencies by the Sunshine Review to recognize efforts in transparency.
The announcement of the awards on Wednesday, March 13, falls during Sunshine Week – a national initiative celebrating open government.
The Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on government transparency, graded more than 1,000 qualifying government websites. Cities, counties, states and school districts' sites were graded according to the organization’s 10-point transparency checklist. Of the total number of sites evaluated, 247 websites received awards.
“The Sunny Awards recognize governments that make transparency a priority,” said Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, in a statement. “The winners of the Sunny Awards are cities, counties and school districts that proactively share the public information that empowers citizens and keeps government accountable to the people.”
To determine eligibility for receiving a Sunny Award, the government websites were analyzed by Sunshine Review editors on information such as their budgets, meetings, lobbying and financial audits. Each of the winners received an “A” grade during the grading process. Florida, Virginia and Illinois took top honors, with Florida earning a total of 25 awards, and Virginia and Illinois each earning 19.
Kristin McMurray, managing editor of the Sunshine Review, said that since the Sunshine Review began the Sunny Awards in 2010, Florida has earned more awards than any other state, mostly due to diligence at the local level to put data online.
“In regard to their state website, their policy toward responding to public records, they’re not as high performing,” McMurray said. “But when you look at their websites, they really are proactive about putting information online.”
But while local government websites fared well in this year's awards, no state government website received an “A” grade, due to the Sunshine Review’s 2013 “raising the bar” initiative. According to the Sunshine Review, the initiative required additional budget information, an online checkbook register and a Freedom of Information ACT (FOIA) request compliance report.
McMurray said the “raising the bar” initiative was aimed at keeping up with the rapid evolution of technology. She said the original checklist for state governments developed in 2010 had become outdated and needed more stringent requirements.
Last year, about 13 state government websites qualified for a Sunny Award, but due to the new initiative, she said, the Sunshine Review expected none of the state websites to qualify this year for the award.
“We do think we posted achievable goals for state websites and we hope that they’ll respond to the grades accordingly,” McMurray said.
McMurray said it’s important for citizens to be able to access information on government websites so they can continue to stay engaged. Some governments recovering from scandals related to their failure to disclose information have improved their websites during what McMurray calls the post-scandal “healing process”.
For example, the city of Bell, Calif., which has a population of nearly 40,000, made headlines in 2010 after it was revealed that nearly $1.6 million was spent annually on the salaries of just three government employees. Controversy surrounded the city’s lack of disclosure of expenditures including employee salaries.
McMurray said that despite the city’s previous transparency scandal, Bell was a recipient of a Sunny Award this year.