One of the best protections against corruption is transparency, and in today’s digital age one of the easiest ways for government to be open and accountable is through posting public documents on the Internet.
Unfortunately, most Illinois counties need to dramatically improve when it comes to online transparency.
The Illinois Policy Institute recently audited all 102 counties in the state for online transparency using a 10-Point Transparency Checklist. The checklist includes a recommendation for local governments to post contact information for elected officials and administrators, information on public meetings and guidelines for citizens to access public information through the Freedom of Information Act. The checklist also recommends financial information such as budgets, audits, expenditures, employee compensation, contracts, lobbying and tax information to be posted online.
The Institute found most Illinois counties are severely deficient when it comes to posting basic participatory and financial information online.
Despite the fact that counties are typically the biggest local government agency in most areas, 22 Illinois counties didn’t have websites. These 22 counties had average annual appropriations of $8.6 million each. Considering the low cost of publishing information online it’s inexcusable for any Illinois county to not have a website with comprehensive transparency measures built in.
The online transparency story wasn’t much better for the 81 counties in Illinois with websites; the average score for these counties was a paltry 32.8 out of a possible 100 points. Except for a few high performing counties, the audit shows that most Illinois counties are failing their citizens when it comes to providing basic public information online.
In many cases, counties are not even complying with existing state laws requiring them to post information in accordance with the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
This lack of transparency creates an opportunity for public corruption.
Since 1976, the state of Illinois has had the third-highest amount of public corruption convictions in the country, trailing only New York and California. A University of Illinois-Chicago study estimates that public corruption in Illinois costs taxpayers a minimum of $500 million per year.
In the wake of several government corruption scandals in 2012 and 2013, Will County Auditor Duffy Blackburn said, “The perception of being detected is one of the strongest deterrents to fraud, according to fraud experts. This is why adopting a policy of transparency in governments, especially local governments, is so important.”
Much more must be done to promote proactive online transparency on the state and local level if Illinois is going to seriously address the state’s long-standing corruption problems.
But improving transparency is not a difficult endeavor. The Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist highlights everything local governments in Illinois need to do to provide the information residents need. Now all local officials need to do is act.
Summary of problem
Illinois is notorious for government corruption, with public officials largely keeping taxpayers in the dark and making important public information difficult to access.
This system has made Illinois fertile for major public corruption scandals. In fact, four out of the last seven Illinois governors have been convicted of public corruption charges.
Outside of Springfield, things aren’t much better. Chicago has been called “the most corrupt city in America.” And a 2010 report by the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Better Government Association revealed that in the last 140 years, 150 top Cook County officials have been convicted in public corruption cases.
Online transparency is the public’s greatest tool to foster government accountability and fight back against Illinois’ corruption problem. The Institute’s audit found that right now, Illinois counties are failing to provide the basic online information taxpayers need. Without comprehensive online transparency standards being applied statewide, the opportunity for public corruption will remain high.
Illinois’ corruption problem isn’t limited to the governor’s mansion, Cook County or the city of Chicago. In 2012, another public corruption case elicited headlines nationwide from a small town that was the boyhood home of former President Ronald Reagan.
In 2012, more than 100 miles to the west of Chicago, city of Dixon taxpayers were shocked by the arrest of longtime comptroller Rita Crundwell. The world-renowned quarter-horse breeder was sentenced to almost 20 years in jail for stealing $53.7 million from city coffers over a period of two decades.
According to the Northern District of Illinois United States Attorney’s Office her crime is the “largest theft of public funds in state history.”
After the Crundwell corruption case became public the Institute immediately conducted an audit of the city of Dixon’s website in accordance with the Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist. The results of the audit showed that the city of Dixon failed miserably, scoring a 16.7 out of a possible 100 points in online transparency measures, and had posted almost no financial information on its website such as budgets, audits, contracts or expenditures.
Only after the Crundwell corruption scandal hit did city of Dixon officials begin to realize the importance of proactive online transparency. In an effort to increase transparency and accountability, the Dixon City Council has adopted the Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist and created an online “Citizen Information Center” where citizens can see regularly updated information about the city’s finances.
Had these measures been taken earlier Crundwell’s corruption could have been exposed much sooner. Online transparency measures in Dixon may even have deterred her from stealing from the city in the first place.
As the number of local taxing bodies pile up it becomes harder for the public to hold these agencies accountable for their actions. Lots of local governments means lots of opportunities for corruption.
Better online transparency standards must be set in Illinois, especially on the local level. Currently, the Public Access Counselor in the Attorney General’s office is the primary enforcer of making sure local governments follow the website posting requirements of the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. As the Institute’s audits prove, this system isn’t working.
Online transparency is the best solution to address the corruption problems in Illinois. Illinois does not need to be the national headquarters for political corruption; this state can be a national leader when it comes to good government transparency and accountability reforms at the state and local level.
Online transparency of public institutions is important for many reasons – here are a few of the most important:
- Taxpayers deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent
- Online transparency helps citizens be more informed and active participants in the democratic process
- Online transparency helps deter and expose public corruption
- Online transparency helps illuminate wasteful government spending to public watchdogs and media
- Online transparency helps lower the cost of providing information to the public
- Online transparency helps local government agencies improve the public’s trust in government, something that is sorely lacking in Illinois
To that end the Institute is a leading advocate for improving online transparency standards statewide through the 10-PointTransparency Checklist.
The Institute’s 10-Point Transparency Checklist establishes standards that every taxpayer-funded local government should strive to meet. Later on, this paper will share more information on how each county scored in each of the 10 categories. By enacting these transparency reforms taxpayers will be able to find the following key facts about any local government in Illinois:10-Point Transparency Checklist
- Contact information: Officials are elected to represent their constituents, and administrative staffers are knowledgeable resources who provide important constituent services. In order to effectively perform their jobs, these officials should be engaged in regular dialogue with the public. Making contact information readily available online will make these public officials as accessible as possible.
- Public meetings: To stay informed and engaged in the democratic process, the public must know when a public body meets and what issues will be discussed. This information should be shared through calendars, agendas and board packets. The public also should receive timely reports about what actually occurred at public meetings in the form of meeting minutes.
- Public information: While a website with comprehensive transparency will substantially decrease the public’s need to file FOIA requests, it is still important for citizens to know how to access additional public information. FOIA requests provide an important means through which the public can obtain information regarding the activities of government agencies. This process should be transparent and give the public multiple ways to submit requests.
- Budgets: Budgets tell taxpayers how much of their money governments plan to spend. They show what goals and priorities a government established for the year and future years. Budget details also serve as a way for taxpayers to determine how the government performed in relation to past years.
- Audits: An audit reveals how well a government performs on its original budget goals, according to common professional standards. Governments are required to have audits conducted – it should follow that they make each audit report automatically available to the public.
- Expenditures: Online access to a checkbook register, or bill list, provides timely and pertinent information about government operations to the citizens and taxpayers. Proactive online disclosure of expenditure information deters waste, fraud and abuse, and increases the chances of rectifying problems once they occur.
- Compensation: Salaries and benefits typically represent the largest expenses for most bodies of government. Government employees work for the citizens and taxpayers. Citizens have a right to know how much in compensation they are paying each of their employees, as well as knowing the number of employees each body of government has.
- Contracts: Contracts – and all bids made for public contracts – should be available for review so the public can evaluate the details. This is the literal definition of doing public business in an open manner. This includes contracts with a senior employee or a collective bargaining unit.
- Lobbying: If the unit of government engages in lobbying activities or pays association or membership dues to any lobbying associations, that information should be disclosed on the government agency’s website. This will allow the public to make sure what is being lobbied for is in the community’s best interest and the costs are reasonable.
- Taxes: Citizens should have ready access to tax and fee information. Not only is it important for citizens to know the costs of government; readily available information helps increase collection rates.
Technology has created an unprecedented opportunity for governments of all sizes to make information publicly available at no incremental cost. While society is more than two decades into the Internet age, most government agencies do not take the proactive approach of providing online access to basic, vital community information.
In addition to the Local Transparency Project, the Institute supports reforms on the state and local level that would require government agencies to post components of the 10-Point Transparency Checklist and other public information online.Why this works
Every citizen deserves open government. Barriers to public participation have locked out citizens from participating in, or even knowing about, many important policy decisions.
Without statewide transparency standards, there is little incentive for local government agencies to proactively provide information to their citizens. Institute transparency audits have revealed huge variances in what information is actually posted online by local units of government.
Online transparency is an important tool for citizens, media and government watchdogs to use to help expose and ultimately prevent public corruption from occurring.
If a government agency already has a website, the cost of posting financial documents online is almost nothing. Documents can be uploaded with a few clicks of a button. Bandwidth is no longer a concern with a number of online vendors, including docstoc.com and scribd.com, which allow anyone to publish documents online for free. Those documents can then be embedded or linked to a website for use by a wide audience.Brian Costin is Director of Government Reform at the Illinois Policy Institute.