California state capitol building

The best and worst states for online transparency

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include Virginia among the states that were rated as exceeding expectations.

State, local and school district organizations have made progress in opening their data to the public, but many still fall short in key areas, according to 2013 Transparency Report Card  by national nonprofit Sunshine Review.

Every state and the largest counties, cities and school districts in each state were graded "A" to "F" against a checklist of information that governments should provide to citizens. States were graded separately on their own sites and then were given an overall grade that averaged the state, city/county and school district grades. In general the states did better than their municipal counterparts, and school districts were the least transparent as a group.

At the bottom of the overall grades were Nebraska, Alabama, South Dakota, Kentucky and Mississippi, which were rated as having the least amount of information available on their government websites.

Exceeds Expectations
B+

California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington

Above Average
B

Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin

Acceptable
B-

Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Oklahoma

Lagging
C+

Arkansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Wyoming

Poor
C

Alabama, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia

 

"Citizens are entitled to crucial information on how the public business is conducted and how public money is spent," said Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, an organization that tracks state and local government transparency. "Without this information, voters cannot hold government accountable. Without transparency, accountability is impossible."

California ranked No. 1, with Washington, Illinois, Maryland, and Pennsylvania  rounding out the top five states with the best overall transparency scores. But no state received an overall "A" grade — which Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review, described in the report as a "disservice to citizens." However, several states did receive "A+" individual grades with 100-percent scores for transparency — California, Massachusetts, Washington and Wisconsin. 

A large majority of sites fell short of an "A" because they failed voluntarily to disclose lobbying data, demonstrate how to access public records, and have easily accessible data, according to the report.

School districts had the most dismal grades, with only 20 percent scoring a "B" or above. State websites outperformed local websites with 26 percent scoring in the "A" range, and 60 percent scoring a "B" or above. City websites outperformed county sites on transparency, with 44 percent earning a "B" or higher, while only 28 percent of counties scored a "B" or above.

Not all was doom and gloom. "All government entities, however, successfully disclosed how to contact elected officials, [and display] annual budgets and meeting minutes," McMurray said. "All state websites reported tax revenue data and disclosed audit information, and 70 percent of school districts posted information about their academic performance."

Reactions to the report were mixed, with at least one government entity questioning  the organization’s accuracy. Blaine County, Idaho, received a D- grade in November – but that grade was based on the website of Blaine, Wis., County Administrator Derek Voss, Katherine Wutz told the Idaho Mountain Express.

"My fear is, they’re very busy making sure they tell other people how to do their jobs but are not doing their own very well," Voss said of the Sunshine Review. "It would almost be entertainment if it wasn’t serious."

Since then, Sunshine Review has changed Blaine County’s website rating to "C," after officials in the Commissioners office  added information to the site to increase the county’s score, the Mountain Express reported.

In Illinois, David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform (ICPR), thought the state’s "B+" rating and third-highest overall ranking was too generous, according to a report in Evanston Now.  "Putting big data dumps online is not the same as providing the info people want to have access to," Morrison said.

Alabama, which received the second-lowest score, may have done so poorly because of the timing of the organization’s review, Pat Harris, secretary of the state Senate, told the website AL.com.  He has sent a letter to Sunshine Review asking it when the investigation was done.

According to Sunshine Review, the legislative website was down when it conducted its investigation, significantly reducing the amount of information available online. Harris, however, said a review of the state’s website shows it has never crashed, but it may have been down for a short period for maintenance.

Online data resources for citizens have grown dramatically under President Barack Obama’s push to create a more transparent government. Last year, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) named open government initiatives in three states – Kansas, Oregon and West Virginia – as finalists in its annual awards program. Collaboration is often a key part of these initiatives. Recently the managers of the federal government’s Data.gov announced they are making available an open-source version of the open data portal for governments worldwide to create transparent information gateways.

Reader Comments

Mon, Feb 4, 2013

What happened to Virginia? Last time I checked it was still part of the United States.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above