Local Government Transparency: How To Improve Visibility For Citizens

Looking to create a culture of transparency in your municipality? Take a look at this presentation.

Ted, Founder and Managing Partner at ClearPoint, has over 25 years of experience working with organizations to improve their performance management and strategy execution processes.

Local government transparency has become a widely discussed topic. Municipal leaders understand that in order to be effective, they need to be as open with their citizens as possible. But what’s the best way to go about this? How can a city actually create a culture of transparency and openness while fostering good visibility into their strategic outcomes? Furthermore, how can municipalities get the feedback from citizens they need?

Below, we’ll take a deep dive into each of these topics. You’ll even find a slideshow below on improving transparency in local government that you can share with your department! Let’s get started.

Improving Local Government Transparency Through Report Sharing

In any municipality, there are going to be certain questions that citizens are curious about.

  • “Why do we need another 1% sales tax increase?”
  • “Are we running on a budget surplus or deficit?”
  • “Our motto is ‘The Safest City’—what are we doing to make our city safer?”

From taxes, to budgets, to city-wide goals, there are plenty of answers residents are searching for to better understand why local government officials are making certain decisions and how they’re allocating city funds.

With these information requests becoming more common, it’s very important that local governments share more data with their citizens, including strategic reports. In this article, we’ve dissected why sharing these reports is important, what they should include, and how to make them readily available.

Why Is It Important To Share Reports With Citizens?

More and more, citizens are looking for relevant, helpful information about how their local government is operating. Often, this information is shared in the form of a strategic or departmental report.

There are a million reasons why sharing these reports with the citizens in your municipality is a good idea, but in the end, it boils down to local government transparency. Locals are saying, “I’m a tax-paying member of this community—and I want to know where the money is going.” And these requests are both straightforward and fair.

But doing this doesn’t just give current city or town residents a helping hand; it’s also great information for individuals looking to relocate to the area. These documents help them understand how funds are being allocated, offers a better idea of what the community is like, provides more insight into whether local services are modern and competitive, and much more. In the end, those seeking this report just want to know that the fund pool they are contributing to is being managed wisely and appropriately.

What Should Be Reported On?

  1. Report on your strategic plan. This is simple if you have one in place, but if you don’t, it’s time to create one. Every municipality should have a strategic plan that is both clear and manageable. During the Transforming Local Government (TLG) conference this year, Chesterfield County gave a fantastic presentation on executing a strategic plan and handling challenges along the way. Check out our synopsis of their presentation and their takeaways.
  2. Report on the operations of every department. This aids in the “local government transparency factor,” because it allows citizens to understand which areas of the city are excelling and which are falling short of expectations.

Keep in mind that reports should be both quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative reporting will answer questions like, “What is the crime rate?” or, “How fast is the fire and police response?” Qualitative reporting will answer, “The crime rate or fire and police response rate is X—what is the city doing to improve these results?”

2 Important Rules For Sharing Reports

  1. Make the reports easily accessible.

With the advent of big data, citizens now have the expectation that data about their cities will be readily available. Not only is it easier for citizens to get hold of, but it shows a strong level of commitment to transparency.

  • First and foremost, make sure that your reports are online. Hard copies that are only available through mail or in-person are a thing of the past.
  • Be sure that your reports are in a clean, organized format—a simply designed PDF is usually the best format.
  • Optimize your website so citizens can easily find the reports. A good user experience online is very important. Hiding your reports in a deep, dark corner of your website—a place that takes 15 clicks to get to—doesn’t convey transparency.
  • Sharing your reports on social media is an excellent way to create interest in the reports and generate social sharing.
  1. Be sure the information you’re releasing is relevant.

Residents don’t care about reports and data that are several years old—they want to know about what has happened recently, on a quarterly, semi-annual, and annual basis.

Keep in mind that the reports you publish will likely also be viewed by those at prospective businesses looking to move to your municipality, peers in nearby towns, those in municipalities across the country, and more. So, gear your strategic reports toward a broader audience so the information is relevant to anyone interested.

If you’re communicating clearly and openly about the questions that matter to your citizens, you will strengthen community ties and foster a culture of citizen involvement. Both getting out in front of requests for this information and immediately posting your reports on the appropriate channels for distribution show proactivity and local government transparency, and will be gestures well-received by your citizens.

Gaining Feedback From Your Citizens

Sharing strategic data via reports with your constituents is, for all the reasons listed above, an important step in improving visibility and fostering transparency. But you also need to introduce a way for your citizens to provide feedback on how you’re performing—and a great way to do that is through citizen satisfaction surveys.

You, too, can clearly communicate your municipality's strategic plan with the help of the Balanced Scorecard. Learn more from these examples.

We spoke with Jason Morado from ETC Institute—a leading provider of citizen survey tools for municipalities—to get his thoughts on the topic. Here’s what he had to say about why citizen satisfaction surveys are important, what to include in these surveys, and more.

Why is a citizen satisfaction survey important?

It’s critical to be able to gauge what your constituents think about the areas your city focuses on. But before you send out a survey (or even create one!) you need to know what you’re going to do with the data and what the point of the survey is. What’s the point otherwise? It’s simply unfair to those who spend the time answering your questions if you don’t plan on utilizing the information.

And while gathering feedback during city hall meetings is one way of gauging citizen satisfaction, it isn’t a statistically validated method. Furthermore, city hall meetings may only attract a certain demographic (for instance, stay-at-home parents or those who have a vested interest in the topic at hand), whereas a survey can represent the feedback of your entire community.

What should be included in the survey?

It’s important to cover all of the areas your municipality focuses on so you know where you should dedicate your time and resources. But keep in mind that areas your citizens are satisfied with will be different than areas they feel are important—so you need to ask them about both. For example, a citizen may feel that the fire department isn’t meeting their satisfaction while feeling that the fire department is critically important. Also, keep in mind that every department and service should be covered on your survey so every citizen feels that their voice can be heard about the areas that are important to them.

When should the survey be sent out?

Ideally, you’ll either send out a survey when you’re in the preliminary stages of drafting your strategy or when you’re adjusting your current strategy. Either way, you’ll want to be able to actually use the feedback you get, so it’s important to send your survey when you’re working through your strategy.

How will the survey impact your strategy?

If you’re measuring how satisfied someone is with a department or service, that may act as your lagging indicator (i.e., how you’ve performed so far). If you’re measuring how important your citizens think your departments or services are, that may act as your leading indicator (i.e., where you need to dedicate resources going forward).

How frequently should a survey be sent out?

This depends entirely on your city. Most larger municipalities send out a survey every year or two. If you’re a smaller municipality, you could send it more frequently—say, biannually. It all depends on how your survey fits into your strategic planning process.

What medium should be used?

While nearly any medium works, we recommend mail and email, as these two are most efficient. Phone surveys are dipping in popularity, as many people no longer have a landline—and simply won’t answer a call from an unrecognized number on their cell phone.

How many questions should be included?

We recommend including 30-40 questions. But keep in mind that a single question could have many subsections beneath it. For example, you may want to ask, “How would you rate the following parks and recreation services (on a scale of 1-10)?” and follow the question with 5-10 unique things your parks and rec department does (i.e., family nights, swimming lessons, etc.)

How can the data we gather be used to improve our city?

There are two things you can do with this feedback that may play a key role in your strategy:

  1. Benchmark yourself against other municipalities to see how you’re doing. If you keep your survey consistent over time, you can also see how your municipality is improving throughout the years.
  2. Use the data to understand how to improve your metrics. It’s one thing to measure how you’re performing and another to put real initiatives in place because of the data you’ve harvested.

Once your citizens have taken the satisfaction survey, be sure you show them some appreciation! You could mail or email them a thank-you card and should also find a way to highlight the changes you made based on the feedback they provided. Not only does this drive up participation for future surveys, but it also improves trust transparency in local government.

Take The Next Steps Toward Cultivating Transparency & Visibility

So far, we’ve covered how you can foster visibility and transparency in local government and gain necessary feedback from citizens. But it may also be helpful for you to share why transparency is so critical with other municipal employees. This may sound obvious to some, but so many organizations do not share their strategy and results throughout their employee ranks.

So, regardless of your sector, apply this external thinking internally and reap these benefits:

  • First, striving to share all of your performance data with all of your employees, organization-wide, is a great communication goal and will require the organization to develop several vehicles and opportunities to communicate the data.
  • Second, communication of performance data and results to employees leads to their better understanding of where the organization is going and how it will get there or, to put it another way, it helps them better understand the strategy. By understanding, they see how they fit into the organization’s plans and look for ways to contribute.
  • Third, better understanding of the strategy by employees leads to greater buy-in to that strategy. It is hard for people to agree to implement a strategy they have never seen, let alone understand. However, if the strategy, data, and results are communicated effectively so that they understand it, there is a much better chance that they will buy-in to it.
  • Finally, once staff buy-in to the strategy and performance measures, it is much easier to get them to implement it and coordinate that implementation across the organization. The thinking is that this coordination will lead to better execution, which leads to better results.

In this slideshow, we present different types of local government transparency, the steps you need to take in order to create visibility in your municipality, and a number of examples from municipalities who have done a great job with transparency.

If, at this point, you have all the tools necessary to be transparent with your citizens, but you’re still feeling a little shaky about internal team engagement, it’s a good idea to revisit your strategy map. If you think yours could use a refresh—or you don’t have a strategy map—take a look at our city and state government strategy map examples ebook, where you’ll discover how four different organizations experienced success with the use of their strategy map. Download it today!

Local Government Transparency: How To Improve Visibility For Citizens