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Feeling the Pressure: Local Governments React to New Transparency Mandates

Before the Internet of Things, smartphones, computers, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the apps and services that we take for granted today, government transparency looked very different. But with technological advancements, citizens expects new levels of online access to government information, and to be able to find that information whenever it suits their needs.

While local government transparency has always been important, there have been recent surges of pressure from state-level governments. This means local government organizations of all sizes and budgets are being forced to react and rapidly improve systems and processes to enhance the public’s access to information. Citizens as well, show an ever increasing demand to access government information online in the form of open access to agendas, minutes, records, meeting recordings, council decisions and other documents.

But what are the costs? How time consuming is it to maintain a full online record of council meetings and decisions? How do you know what exactly it means to be transparent? Like most things; it depends.  While local governments need to quickly find answers to these questions, the pressures to be more open and inclusive continue to mount.  

Video Meetings - A  New Requirement for Many Texas Counties and Municipalities

In Texas, new mandates have forced local governments to act quickly to record council meetings.

When House Bill 283 was brought to life by State Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco it became law that cities with a population greater than 50,000 and counties with more than 125,000 people had to produce video recordings for every public meeting. This even applied to ‘home rule’ cities.  See this story in The Dallas News for a full overview. The bipartisan bill passed because of a belief that governments should better leverage existing technology to make it easier for the public to engage with council meetings.  Fallon plans to push for similar legislation in 2017 that applies to a broader range of local governments.

While it may seem intuitive to say that costs to local governments would go up with increased efforts to enhance the level of transparency, it’s not necessarily the case. In fact, the Dallas News story suggests that it’s been much less expensive for organizations to provide video recordings than initially thought. The key here is to develop a set of affordable, easy-to-use tools that help to automate and produce good quality videos that the public can actually understand.  And with pending legislation in Texas likely to impact smaller governments, they will need to quickly innovate to comply with these laws as well.  

Closing Loopholes That Might Limit Public Consultation

In Nebraska, Senator Mike Groene put forward a bill that would require that time limits be removed from budget meetings hosted by local government so that anyone with a question or concern could have it addressed at a meeting. You can read the full story from the Bristol Courier Herald here. This bill was designed to close a loophole that some government organizations would leverage to end public consultations early, without everyone in attendance getting an opportunity to speak.

Again this is an example of state government officials setting clear guidelines for their local government counterparts.  There are countless ways for local governments to position themselves optimally, in case sudden movements or actions from higher level governments. Being prepared, proactive and making a consistent effort to be open will generally put any organization in good standing when new legislation is passed.  

Local Governments Being Held Accountable

Some states that have put transparency regulations in place for local governments are now following up and holding these organizations accountable. An audit was conducted in Missouri by State Auditor Nicole Galloway to see how many of the 326 governments surveyed are meeting the standards set in Missouri’s new Sunshine Law. It was found that 70% of local government's failed to satisfy the law, which was put in place for citizens to have easy access to learn and understand where their tax dollars are being spent.  The St.Louis Dispatch filed a story on the release of the report you can read here.

The non-complying local governments were outed publicly in her report, with the information making its way into the local news cycles in many communities and putting a giant negative spotlight on the leaders of these organizations. No local government was spared, with a strong message being sent that organizations of all sizes need to be held accountable on transparency.  

You’re Never Done with Transparency

Governments will undoubtedly become more transparent as time passes, but in many cases state governments are adding additional oversight and new regulations to accelerate that process.  It’s important to be proactive, build a culture of innovation and operate under the assumption that as technology changes so will the demands on local governments to be transparent.  

Looking to take a step forward with transparency at your local government organization? iCompass provides a full suite of meeting, records and video streaming solutions uniquely designed to help small local government organizations be more open and efficient. To learn more watch our 3-minute introductory demo video here.