Salt Lake Tribune
April 16, 2012
Joel Campbell is an associate journalism professor in the Brigham Young University department of communications. He writes about the First Amendment and open government for the Tribune. His opinions are his own and do not represent BYU. He is the instructor of Communications 308 students who participated in the Utah Transparency Project research.
Last week, an ambitious group of University of Utah honors students unveiled the results of their semester-long project to help promote transparency in county, city and town government. Utahns should take notice.
In a news conference, Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker and Councilman Soren Simonsen signed the studentsí Utah Transparency Project book. Students hope many more local government officials will sign the book and, even more importantly, commit to adopting recommended best practices.
As Becker said at the news conference, the goal of government transparency is ďaspirational.Ē Itís something governments of any size can start working toward, even if it canít afford to take on the transparency initiatives large cities such as Salt Lake City or West Valley City have. Citizens should demand basic standards now and a pledge for officials to adopt more sophisticated transparency practices in the future.
The Utah students enlisted the help of a BYU journalism research course, and students in that class reviewed websites of nine Utah cities and towns, as well as six counties. Students then conducted follow-up interviews with local officials about availability of information. A final report is due out in May, and leaders will be invited to accept the transparency challenge.
Without any statewide standards, itís not surprising how widely the quality of information varies on local websites. Here are some overall themes and examples drawn from this review:
- Most local governments post basic information about government bodies, agendas, government employees and contact information. Even then, in some corners of the state, it was hard to find contact information of elected officials. On Duchesne Countyís website, for example, itís hard to tell whom to contact in county government except the sheriff. Many other entities still have no specific instructions about how to file a records request or local ordinances spelling out request rules.
- Not enough local governments post budget information. It was difficult for reviewers to find basic government budget information on most of the sites reviewed. This should be a bedrock standard for transparency. Even if a small city, town or county doesnít have the staff to post detailed budget information, there is an easy solution. Cities and counties should link to the statewide transparency website, where budgets are posted.
- Even smaller entities can do a good job. For example, a reviewer praised Moabís website as an excellent example of publicizing public meetings, posting agendas and inviting public involvement.
While for many local governments, improving a local website may be a goal, a couple of entities can give a glimpse of what transparency and technology can mean in the future. Salt Lake City uses technology and other means to get more people involved in decision making. The next horizon for government is to find more ways for people to submit opinions on policy and law. Other cities are using streaming video for board and council meetings.
State lawmakers and local elected leaders should examine the benefits of transparency in building confidence, trust and participation in government. These University of Utah students have set the stage. Everyday citizens and politicians alike now need to take the challenge and help change Utahís government culture through policy direction.
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