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World-Class Community Flunks Budget Transparency Test

 

 

In a survey of the Internet websites of Virginia's 134 counties and independent cites by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government (VCOG), Arlington County ranked #21, earning 44 out of a possible 50 points, and received a score of B+. The city of Fairfax score 50 points, and earned the solitary A+ of all 134 jurisdictions.

According to VCOG's introductory letter, here is the essence of the survey methodology:

"After a comprehensive survey of the websites for all 134 counties and independent cities in the state, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government can tell you that in King George County it takes six clicks of a mouse to get to this fiscal year’s current operating budget. It takes five in Norfolk, four in Tazewell County, three in Harrisonburg, two in Amelia County, and just one in Manassas. Unfortunately, in 26 localities, no amount of clicks would reach a current budget, because none was posted.

"VCOG didn’t just count clicks, however. We also surveyed the localities for how easy it was to find and follow each click to the budget. We examined whether the budget was available in one comparative document, in sections or both. We looked at formats and whether it was searchable by keyword. We looked at whether the budget could be found on a home-page search box or a site map. We wondered if past budgets were available
and how many. We searched for context, explanations and summaries. And we took note of helpful information along the way: explanations of the budget process, a budget calendar, citizen input, offers of free budget CDs.

"We gathered all this data and then asked 10 basic questions of each site. Based on the answers to each of these questions we then came up with a grade for each county."

If you're wondering why VCOG chose to focus on the budget, here's their reasoning:

"Why did VCOG choose to search out the budget on each locality’s website? Why, out of all the services a local government provides, did we home in on just one document?

It’s simple, really: Without the budget there’s nothing else.

"Everyone knows what a budget is. Whether it’s your personal finances, a business balance sheet, Congress, a wedding plan, a PTA bake sale, most adults (and hopefully some kids out there!) understand money in and money out. For a local government budget, the money in is from taxpayers’ pockets (federal funds and grants, too, of course), and the money out is the spending of those taxpayer funds.

"The budget is thus the most literal way government can be held accountable. The budget’s numbers tell us what the government’s priorities are. The numbers by themselves don’t have spin. It is up to citizens to decide if the money is being spent appropriately, in the right amounts and for the things we value.

"As we are what we eat, our governments are what they spend. We should have some way of keeping track of that."

For the record, "(t)he Virginia Coalition for Open Government engages citizens to monitor the actions of their state and local governments as part of the democratic process." It "is a non-profit, non-partisan membership organization that presses for access to public records, meetings and judicial proceedings." You can learn more at their website. The "project was funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the National Freedom of Information Coalition."

For a county that considers itself to be "world-class," we would have expected better. The county should either stop thinking of itself as world-class or use the VCOG report to launch a discussion of how to improve the presentation of the budget and other important public documents.

UPDATE (1/14/13) In a rather detailed online story today, the Arlington Sun Gazette reports: "County-government officials are defending their transparency on budget issues, after receiving a better-than-average but not best-in-show grade from a statewide watchdog group."

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