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Improve government transparency by providing details of policies under consideration

An engaged citizenry should be the pursuit not the torment of democracy. Adopting policies favoring government transparency at all levels of government is of utmost importance to the progression of free market ideals. Providing citizens with notice of public meetings and meaningful details of the topics on agendas is the first step towards more government transparency.

 

In a survey by CivicsPlus of 16,000 people, 82% wanted more government transparency at the local level. The same survey also found that individuals engaging with city websites more than once a month were 5 times more trusting in their city council. As local governments share information, engage with constituents, and increase dialogue, more trust in government is built.


This trust is a time-saving effort. Government officials spend less time on dispersing information when a framework already exists. Also, an informed citizenry needs less time spent on history and background information and can move forward to solutions. These benefits of transparent government can be realized when: 

1.     Public Meetings are Announced and Available: Public meetings should be announced on a regular platform, where it is easy for citizens to find and attend. Meetings should take advantage of the digital age, and allow attendance through online meeting platforms – this includes remote testimony. Meetings should also be recorded for citizens to have access to and review previous material.

2.     Five Days Public Notice of Agenda: It is difficult for citizens to come prepared to government meetings without knowing the agenda items before the meeting. Local government, including all councils, commissions, and boards should provide agenda items with at least five-day notice.

3.     Policy Changes and Proposals Included in Packet: All policy changes and proposals included on a public meeting agenda for any level of government should have related documents and information publicly available before the meeting. If the item is included in the agenda and up for discussion, information should be included before the meeting explaining the issue. This includes the actual text of ordinances (etc.) to be considered.

 

Efforts towards more open public meetings are ongoing throughout the country. For example, the Transparent Idaho website has already taken a great step towards open and transparent government finances by providing spending information for the cities and school boards. The Town Hall Idaho website also provides a list of all upcoming public meetings and links to virtual platforms when available. The natural next step is for the documents and proposed measures under consideration to also be available when notice of a public meeting is made.

 

We asked Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf for his thoughts on these recommendations. Woolf said:


“To have a truly engaged citizenry, public entities must publish documents and policies pertinent to any action or discussion before a public meeting. Providing transparency through Townhall.Idaho.gov is crucial for empowering Idahoans to engage with their policymakers. At present, Townhall Idaho provides meeting notices for state agencies, with opportunities to expand this service to include local government notices. We wholeheartedly support any initiative that will ensure Idahoans have the information needed to participate meaningfully in their government.”


One of the few benefits of the pandemic was increased government transparency. All levels of government adopted virtual meetings and had electronic notice of meetings (at least to the board). Pandemic angst and frustrations increased public participation in government meetings. Unfortunately, among state and local authorities, some entities are ending live streaming and remote participation. There is no good reason for this reduction in public access.  

 

State and local governments should embrace increased transparency and provide access to the same details provided to public officials when issuing a public notice of a meeting and agenda. Citizens will benefit when government meetings are public for everyone (online and in-person), a five-day notice is provided, and relevant information is publicly included in the agenda notice before the meeting.  

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