~ 9 MIN READ
8 Ways Technology Can Improve Local Government Transparency
Cities, it’s time to innovate. These eight ideas will get you on track toward complete transparency.
If you’re reading this article, you might be wondering how you can engage the citizens in your municipality in such a technology-driven world. Is there some sort of local government transparency “code” to follow? That’s a great question! To answer it, we’ve identified eight of the most important technologies that can improve your local government’s transparency.
Now, you may already be doing something on this list—but our hope is that through this government transparency index, you’ll come across a new idea or suggestion that will help you take your municipality (and level of transparency) to the next level. Let’s take a look!
1. Online Citizen Engagement
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. Open Town Hall from Peak Democracy, for example, offers several product offerings for municipalities to engage their citizens in this way.
2. Neighborhood Networks
Seattle, Washington, uses a program called My Neighborhood Map. It is an interactive map that allows citizens to find services, see construction or road blocks, look at 911 incident responses, 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 get your citizens to be more involved in their communities and help your municipality stay on the leading edge of technology.
3. Online 311 Software
Citizens need a forum for immediately alerting their municipal government about potholes, power outages, or crime sprees. Back in the day, customer service “311” phone lines were used, but today, those services come in the form of software applications. Some of the top 311 software applications are:
All of these applications offer different features, but the idea behind them is roughly the same: If a citizen notices anything the city needs to know right away, they use the application to alert them. (Some services allow citizens to take a picture of the issue—like overgrown weeds in a park, for example—and submit it directly through an app.) Once the issue has been resolved, some applications will alert the citizen to let them know.
4. Social Media
Using social media—and Twitter, in particular—is incredibly important for improving local government transparency. A few months ago, we spoke with four city managers about their social media strategies. Be sure to read that article if you want to learn:
- How to get citizens to follow you.
- What kind of information you might want to post.
- How to respond to tweets directed at you, both positive and negative.
- What your posting frequency may look like.
- Advice for city managers or local government officials using Twitter to increase social interactions and transparency in local government.
Buffer and HootSuite can also be incredibly important for a communications department within a city that is trying to figure out the best ways to reach residents. Those apps allow you to set up and schedule tweets without any hassle or issues.
5. Balanced Scorecard & Reporting Software
There are loads of report generation software options on the market today. Each of them offer a unique niche in the market. (And we’re also pretty fond of our own balanced scorecard and dashboard software.) Municipalities can use this kind of software to create data-driven, visual reports that they can distribute across different channels for both internal use and citizen interaction and engagement.
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—and you can learn more about it from this SlideShare.
6. Stat Programs
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 at your city.
If you want to learn more about Stat programs in local government, we suggest looking at these two municipal examples:
7. Web Presence & User Interface
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 a citizen has to spend excessive amounts of time parsing through their cities website to find what they’re looking for, they’ll feel as though the municipality has let them down. Citizens need to see that 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 Vision Internet 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.
8. Community Dashboard
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!
What To Share Internally Vs. Externally
The options for technology we just covered are all for sharing information externally. But, you shouldn't share everything externally. Local governments collect a wealth of data to continually improve operations and answer the call for transparency from citizens. There aren’t any universal government reporting requirements, so cities must pick and choose the information that’s relevant to share with employees and citizens—and how to do so most effectively.
Why is this important? When city data is shared effectively, it’s proven to create more synergy and investment from both internal and external groups. Here’s how you can decide which information should be made public, and which should stay behind the scenes:
What To Share Internally
Internal government reporting should be based on the strategic plan. All employees should have access to this plan, so there is essentially no limit to the information that can be shared internally. That being said, the most effective reports condense the strategic plan and make clear what metrics should be tracked, including goals, projects, and priorities.
Several components of the strategic plan are normally shared internally, but not externally. These items help with transparency, decision making, and alignment throughout your municipality:
Department Budget Information
One of the biggest challenges organizations face is they typically only get insight into their budget at the beginning of the fiscal year, six months in, and one to two months before the end of the year. With access to budget information each month, departments can control whether they speed up or slow down their spending throughout the year.
Work plans are the annual tactical plan for each department. If developed correctly, they link to the strategic plan. Having visibility into work plans, especially how they connect to the strategic plan, will show everyone in the department and organization that they are all pulling in the same direction.
Key Departmental Initiatives
Sharing progress on key initiatives from each department will keep communication flowing as projects are completed. If delays or problems occur, more people will be involved and available to suggest solutions or adjust anything that’s dependent on these key initiatives. The additional insight and visibility is beneficial because projects often involve multiple departments working toward an end product.
How To Share Internally
Once you’ve identified what information to share internally, it’s wise to develop best practices on how to share it with internal reports that keep contributors informed and invested in the process:
Develop a reliable process and calendar.
Having a consistent process helps employees appreciate the benefits of government reporting, rather than viewing it as unpredictable or extra work on their plate. If you’ve taken the initiative to standardize the reporting process, then users know what they need to do, when they need to do it, and how it benefits them.
It’s important to define reporting components (evaluation criteria, reporting frequencies, naming conventions, due dates, etc.) that make sense for your organization and communicate them in a way employees can refer back to—this is often called a management reporting guide. Clear communication helps users make consistent, relevant updates in the time frames you’ve specified.
Once your government reporting process is in place, you need an easy way to communicate deadlines and expectations. Effective email reminders nudge users about upcoming reporting deadlines and contain direct links to the information they need to update. This allows you to set expectations and provide users with clear details on what they are responsible for; it also saves everyone time. No more excuses that people didn’t know what they were supposed to do!
Make reports user-friendly.
Reports are the summaries that allow you to compare information across goals, metrics, and initiatives. They can also serve as a central location for everyone to make updates, so it’s important they are user-friendly. Here are some tips on how to accomplish that:
- Set up reports with a specific purpose in mind (e.g. a theme in your strategic plan or a meeting) and label them accordingly.
- Create one central place or page where users can input their data, so it’s easy to make updates.
- Create a summary dashboard where employees can stay on top of the most important, high-level information.
Productivity Tip: Send reports at least a week in advance of meetings as pre-reading material. You will have better discussions if everyone has reviewed the information and prepared.
The more information that’s collected and consolidated within one system, the easier it will be for users to make updates—they simply have to log in to one platform, instead of gathering data from multiple sources. Data integrations give users their preferred platform to input metrics, speeding up the process so you can focus on interpreting those metrics and making insightful analyses.
While your instinct might be to restrict users’ access to only the information they directly influence or update, unlocking access to the full strategic plan (even if it’s just to look!) fosters an understanding of how users have contributed to city goals and achievements, and generates more buy-in from across the organization. Employees will understand why they spend time on reporting and how their role is driving progress.
It’s critical to solidify your internal reporting process before you release information publicly. You have one chance to make a first impression—if the metrics you share aren’t helpful or consistent, you risk confusing and alienating citizens.
What To Share Externally
The best way to decide what’s most suitable for public consumption is to think about your audience—the citizens. Knowing the information citizens want and need to see is key to determining what to share externally. Click To Tweet
Virtually anything a local government tracks can be shared externally (and some states require information to be provided when asked for), but it’s unrealistic to publish every datapoint on your dashboards—there’s simply too much information. The best way to decide what’s most suitable for public consumption is to think about your audience—the citizens. Knowing the information citizens want and need to see is key to determining what to share externally. Here are some items that local governments commonly share with citizens:
Strategic Plan Themes
Typically, there are five to seven key themes in a strategic plan. Give your citizens a summary of each theme’s focus. Your summaries should be concise and high-level, providing general details in a handful of sentences.
Most municipalities track 300 to 800 metrics across all departments, but this is too much detail to share externally. Citizens primarily need to understand the progress on top-level items. Publish three to six key measures for each strategic theme, which will equate to about 15 to 42 measures total.
Data you share needs context to be understood. Context includes definitions, status indicators, analysis, history, and possibly why the metric is important or tracked. For example, if you shared that the crime rate dropped by 12 percent, that metric should also include the definition of a crime rate, whether 12 percent is on track or not, theories why crime is lower, and year-over-year comparison numbers. Charts, graphs, and other visuals are helpful in providing context.
How To Share Externally
Your goal is to make the information you publish externally easy to understand and relevant. How you share information with citizens is just as important as the data you’re sharing:
Translate internal language.
Internal government reporting typically includes technical jargon and acronyms, and assumes familiarity with the municipality’s strategic plan and operations. Citizens will not have this “insider information,” so be sure to spell out what each metric or goal means, why it’s important, and how the city is progressing in that area. You might even provide some background information on the creation of the strategic plan, and how often to expect new data to be published.
Focus on what citizens care about.
What do your citizens value most in their community? What information do they want to see? If you’re not sure, send out surveys, ask at town hall meetings, create focus groups, and even look at other cities to get ideas. Dedicate time and effort to crafting and publishing the content that’s most important to citizens. You may change what you share over time, based on the city’s current projects and citizens’ priorities. For example, if a recent spike in complaints has led the city to focus on improving road quality and safety, you might display metrics on lane miles repaved and the number of driving accidents reported. Keep what you publish relevant.
Tell a story.
Don’t leave it up to citizens to analyze raw data and draw conclusions (which might take several hours and a degree in economics). Package information in neat, engaging summaries; control the story and tell a compelling narrative by including qualitative analysis alongside your charts and numbers. If you’re just data dumping, the information will be overwhelming and confusing.
Open data will create trust in government and foster community involvement. There are a few common ways you can be transparent without deluging citizens with information. Summarize your goals and progress in an annual report, share department business plans, or post your city’s long-term strategic plan and how you’re tracking on its priorities.
With the wealth of information living in reports, it can be challenging to determine what should be shared externally, what should be kept in-house, and how to communicate information with all groups. Your success will depend on your ability to develop a reliable reporting process and understand the different audiences.