~ 17 MIN READ
Strategies (and Examples!) To Improve Local Government Transparency
Cities, it’s time to innovate. These ideas will get you on track toward complete transparency.
Local government transparency has become a widely discussed topic. City and county 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?
According to a recent Deloitte study, one of the key drivers of trust in state and local government is a government’s digital capabilities: Individuals who are pleased with a government’s digital services tend to rate that government highly in measures of overall trust. In other words, in terms of local government, the simpler it is to find information and interact with municipal leaders online, the more likely citizens are to view those leaders as competent, reliable, and trustworthy.
That’s a significant insight, and one that can be easily addressed with the help of technology.
Today, there are a number of excellent tech tools available that can enhance the online user experience your municipality offers its citizenry, whether the goal is to collect citizen feedback, provide access to services, or share performance data. In this article, we’ll cover a number of technologies that can help improve your online services; we’ll also discuss two additional considerations that impact transparency and help build trust.
In This Article
- Chapter 1: 8 Technologies To Improve Local Government Transparency
- 1. Online Citizen Engagement
- 2. Neighborhood Networks
- 3. Online 311 Software
- 4. Social Media
- 5. Web Presence & User Interface
- 6. Balanced Scorecard & Reporting Software
- 7. Stat Programs
- 8. Community Dashboard
- Other Ways To Improve Local Government Transparency
- Chapter 2: Transparency In Information-sharing
- What Should You Report On?
- 2. Your Operations
- 3. Your Finances
- 3 Rules Of Thumb For Sharing Reports
- 1. Make the reports easily accessible.
- 2. Be sure the information you’re releasing is relevant.
- 3. Make sure the information is digestible.
- 3 Examples Of Local Government Transparency Using ClearPoint
- 1. Durham, North Carolina
- 2. Cuyahoga County, Ohio
- 3. Buncombe County, North Carolina
- Chapter 3: Transparency In <strong>Citizen Interaction</strong>
- Why is a citizen satisfaction survey important?
- What should be included in the survey?
- When should the survey be sent out?
- How will the survey impact your strategy?
- How frequently should a survey be sent out?
- What medium should be used?
- How many questions should be included?
- How can the data we gather be used to improve our city?
- Take The Next Steps Toward Cultivating Transparency & Visibility
Technology has made it easier than ever for citizens to participate in open discussions with municipal leaders. If a citizen is able to call in and ask the mayor a question online while that citizen is at home after hours for example, that will save them a great deal of time and effort.
There are a couple of technology solutions out there that make doing this easier. OpenGov’s Open Town Hall, for example, offers several product offerings for municipalities to engage their citizens in this way.
Indianapolis, Indiana uses a program called My Neighborhood. It is an interactive map that allows citizens to find government services nearest to their location—everything from libraries and fire stations to bus routes, youth shelters, hospitals, and more.
Nextdoor is another unique network for transparency and citizen engagement. It brands itself as a private social network neighborhood and allows users to create accounts and post classifieds, participate in communication threads, look at crime watches, and more.
Promoting or using these services may encourage your citizens to be more involved in their communities and help your municipality stay on the leading edge of technology.
Citizens need a forum to submit requests and complaints, and ask questions. Back in the day, customer service “311” phone lines were used to tackle these incoming nonemergency calls, but today, those services come in the form of software applications. Now, 311 software has become very popular, with residents using it to report a wide range of issues, anything from leaking hydrants to potholes to graffiti to noise complaints.
Some of the top 311 software applications are:
311 systems present an efficient way for governments to find and tackle problems before they get too big; it also gives your residents a voice. Additionally, many modern 311 systems are cloud-based and capable of capturing a ton of data, which can then be used to set performance goals. For example, if the department of public works guarantees they’ll fill newly reported potholes within 72 hours, such metrics can be tracked for accountability and shared with the public online.
Social media platforms are efficient, low-cost tools that facilitate local government transparency. Not only are they an excellent way for municipalities to communicate out, but they are also useful for gathering citizen feedback and gauging public sentiment.
When cities are engaged, residents notice. They’ll learn quickly that accessing your municipal Twitter account will give them a consistent and useful stream of information, including the latest weather updates, road closures, citywide events, and even local news. You can also publish informational links related to public meetings, financial reports, or budgets.
Sharing information freely builds trust, but communication is a two-way street. Encourage people to provide feedback on certain topics or initiatives, and to show up at city council meetings. Also, make it a point to respond to people’s questions and concerns communicated via social media. The more interactivity your social media accounts offer—and the more human your presence (in both the literal and broader sense of the word)—the more satisfied people will be with your efforts.
A lot of municipal websites are painfully outdated. Not only do the look and feel seem behind the times, but the user interface (UI) is often not well thought-out. You can see how this is problematic in terms of transparency; if someone has to spend excessive amounts of time parsing through their city’s website to find what they’re looking for, they’ll feel as though the municipality has let them down.
Citizens need to see you’re making a concerted effort to put the information they want to see in a natural and easily accessible area of the web. (We recommend taking a look at govAccess and Civic Plus, two municipal-focused website providers.)
Note: Because so much of web browsing is done on a smartphone or a tablet, it’s imperative that your website is responsive. Your programmers or IT department should be able to help you integrate a web design that works on any kind of device.
One way to help ensure you’re doing this is making sure you have a responsive website design that works on a variety of browsers: for desktop, tablet, and smartphone.
In any municipality, there are going to be certain questions 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?”
Residents want to 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.
Municipalities can use report generation software to create data-driven, visual reports that can be distributed across different channels for both internal use and citizen interaction and engagement. There are loads of options on the market today, including our own reporting software, ClearPoint, which is used by numerous local governments. (Take a look at some of our local government case studies below to learn more!)
Note: Being transparent doesn’t mean gathering all of your data from reporting software and dumping it online. This method of transparency asks a lot of your citizens! A better alternative is something we call strategic transparency, which you can learn more about in Chapter 2.
Stat programs are performance measurement tools that focus on data analysis. They have become increasingly popular among local governments and are known to help drive performance, success, and innovation. This can also be seen as an approach for managing rather than a particular technology.
Several different companies can help you manage a Stat program in your city. If you want to learn more about Stat programs in local government, we suggest looking at these two municipal examples:
Having a community dashboard is one important way your city can become more transparent. Your community dashboard provides your municipality with an opportunity to tell the story of how you’re executing on your strategic plan. This article walks you through the importance of community dashboards and why each aspect of a community dashboard can increase municipal transparency—so make sure you give it a read!
Arapahoe County in Colorado created an online performance management dashboard so citizens can dig into the details of performance as related to finances, service, and quality of life.
Using one or more of the above-listed technology tools will go a long way toward improving your citizens’ online user experiences and building trust. But there’s more to it than that: You also need to consider how to share and gather information in a manner that is fully transparent.
To make sure your city is doing everything it can to foster relationships with its residents, keep reading to learn about two other important methods of increasing transparency in local government.
In any municipality, there are going to be certain things 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. 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 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, offer a better idea of what the community is like, provide 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 well-managed.
To demonstrate you’re managing things wisely and appropriately, report on these three things:
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. (For more on how to create a strategic plan, read this article, which covers the topic thoroughly.)
Strategic performance management entails defining your long-term goals and creating a clear plan to achieve them. For example, you may create a number of projects that allow you to track quantitative progress toward a particular part of your citywide goal.
Monitoring your strategic performance and tracking citywide progress is important for every municipality, but if you don’t communicate the results of these efforts to residents, the strategic management process holds far less value. Current and prospective citizens and business owners want to understand:
- Is the city organized?
- Is the leadership capable of executing strategy?
- Is the city well-managed?
- Are members of the leadership fiscally responsible?
When a strategic plan is added online in plain sight, citizens feel more comfortable that their local government is on target for short- and long-term growth. They can appreciate the numbers in context, see the trends over time, and understand the municipal strategy far easier. This is where performance management software comes in handy. Municipal leaders can create scorecards and dashboards and can display the designed results right on their city’s website.
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.
Good financial management is key to realizing your community’s vision, and the budget is among the primary tools guiding that pursuit. Not only does it represent plans for the future of the community, but it also helps maintain financial accountability for local leaders. It’s no wonder that reporting on the municipality’s financial status and activities is an important component of local government transparency.
Keep in mind that your goal is to provide user-friendly financial data. Sharing traditional spreadsheets and financial statements—or other complex data sets your average person can’t make heads or tails of—won’t help reassure people that their tax money is being well-spent.
Instead, present your finances in connection with your strategy. Link budget items to your government’s long-term goals, clearly showing how each of your activities—and the associated expenses—supports them. Chart your budget performance over time to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. And consider adding textual explanations alongside the numbers to tell the full story of your spending and how it’s contributing to the community’s future. When people can clearly see that public funds are being allocated and spent in ways that will positively affect them, they’re more likely to have a positive view of government spending.
ClearPoint users can create charts like these that show city-wide costs and costs by department.
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 your reports are in a clean, organized format—a simply designed PDF usually works best.
- 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.
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.
Some municipalities believe that publishing loads of data sheets online (i.e., “data dumping”) is useful. The Open Data Index defines open knowledge as “any content, information, or data that people are free to use, reuse and redistribute—without any legal, technological or social restriction.” They stress that “open knowledge is what data becomes when it’s useful, usable and used” and explain that the data “must be available as a whole” for it to be considered open.
But is that really what the average citizen is looking for, or is that simply too much information to easily digest? We acknowledge that publishing data online—in any format—is a step in the right direction, but whether or not that data fosters transparency and citizen trust is up in the air.
We’ve found that transparency is best fostered when citizens can access and read through the information in an easily-accessible format. Why? Because your citizens aren’t all working in performance management or municipal government! They want to know where their tax dollars are going, how safe their city is, and more generally, how well the city is performing. If they have to wade through a bunch of data to figure this out, it can be frustrating and time-consuming.
Local governments that use ClearPoint are not only able to manage and track their strategic plans, but also to benefit from its advanced reporting features. Governments have the option to build public-facing dashboards or create custom reports for public consumption on the web. Either option produces easy-to-understand, attractive reports that link to your strategy, giving citizens all the data they need to stay informed and engaged.
Here’s how three local governments are currently using ClearPoint to increase transparency:
Durham, North Carolina, didn’t have a strategic plan for many years. Once the economy took a hit, they knew implementing a strategy would be a good idea. Using performance management software, Durham city officials were able to create and publish their dashboard and display their strategic performance measures for citizens in an easily digestible format. This helped foster a better sense of local government transparency:
“Since implementing the strategic plan, there’s been more of a collaborative effort. We’ve seen better communication between departments, a stronger partnership with the county, and more opportunities to engage with our residents.” Jay Reinstein, former Strategic Plan Project Manager (Durham, North Carolina)
Calling its performance platform “Cuyahoga Performance,” Cuyahoga County uses data to identify where the county is making progress toward goal achievement and where opportunities for improvement exist. As the site notes, “by monitoring and reporting our performance, the county hopes to increase transparency, show the impact of county programs, and engage the community in conversations about how we can achieve positive results for our community.”
Cuyahoga’s online public dashboard provides quarterly updates on five areas of focus:
- Regional Growth
- Economic Opportunity
- Individual Well-being
- Mobilize Cross-sector Resources
- Provide Superior Services
Residents can click on any of these categories to see the status of goals and measures and dive even deeper into the data in any area they wish. All the information is easily digestible and clear. Notably, the communications strategy seems to be working: The county government achieved new highs in external and social media reporting in Q1 of 2022!
Similar to Cuyahoga County, Buncombe County also publishes its ClearPoint data in a public-facing way, showing performance data for each of its four focus areas:
- Educated & Capable Community
- Environmental & Energy Stewardship
- Resident Well-being
- Vibrant Economy
Visitors can navigate to performance areas using a drop-down menu, where they can see the most recently reported results via simple gauge and column charts. All the county’s goals are thoroughly explained and reporting periods identified. Its government site also includes the full strategic plan, community survey results, and recent community presentations.
For more examples of local government transparency, take a look through the websites of Vaughan, California, and Charlottesville, North Carolina. You’ll likely walk away with a few ideas on how to connect with citizens and manage your municipal strategy.
Beyond simply conveying information, another major component of transparency is how the city responds to citizen interaction. More often than not, this interaction is in the form of citizen feedback.
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.
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.
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 from 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 in your survey so every citizen feels that their voice can be heard about the areas that are important to them.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
There are two things you can do with this feedback that may play a key role in your strategy:
- 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.
- 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.
Remember, the more channels you take advantage of—and the more interconnected you are on those channels—the better chance you have of being perceived by your citizens as transparent.
Cities are, for lack of a better word, “competing” against other cities for residents, businesses, tax dollars, state grants, and federal grants. Therefore, anything your municipality can do to create an edge is important! In the next 3-5 years, many of these things will simply become the norm. So, if you can adopt these ideas and technologies now, we’re confident you’ll be a leader in your area very quickly (and your citizens will notice).
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. And if you’d like to learn more about ClearPoint and how it can help you increase your local government’s transparency, please reach out—we’d love to hear from you!