The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government conducted a survey of county and municipal websites to gauge whether the public could easily find pertinent government information online. The bulk of the audit was done by Frank Cardoza, University of New Mexico law student and FOG legal intern. Mr. Cardoza examined the websites of 31 cities and 27 counties and scored them on objective criteria, including Financial Data, Accountability Data, Public Meetings Information, Public Records Information, Contact Information, Other Frequently Sought Information, and Website Functionality and Ease of Use.
As a result of the audit, FOG identified best practices and areas for improvement in public websites. The audit is intended to assist government bodies to better manage websites and to present more useful data for the public in accessible formats. Ideally, all public information online should be downloadable, searchable and sortable by the public. FOG is available to coach and guide governments needing assistance with implementing suggestions for more transparency.
Financial Information and Accountability Data
County and municipal websites that scored highest on the FOG survey made a concerted effort to provide the public with detailed financial information. While publishing an annual budget is helpful to improve accountability, a better practice is to provide additional information that shows exactly how taxpayer money is being spent.
Sites that were most effective included comprehensive departmental spending reports and even made available public bank statements and check registers with accompanying vendor lists. This approach to financial transparency allows the public to review precisely how much money is being spent for specific projects and programs. Moreover, the public can easily see how much third-party contractors are being paid for specific work. This practice promotes fairness in the contract bidding process and levels the playing field for companies wishing to do business with city or county governments.
Making financial audits conducted by third parties available on websites for public review further improves accountability. Taxpayers have a right to see the findings of any such independent analyses and inquiries, and these reports are instrumental in maintaining the public trust. Governmental entities can demonstrate a commitment to transparency and openness by proactively making public as much financial information as possible.
Public Meetings and Minutes
The majority of city and county websites reviewed performed well on providing recent meeting minutes, upcoming meeting agendas and notifying citizens of future meetings. Websites that featured interactive calendars for meeting dates and organized archival systems for agendas and minutes scored higher on the survey. These identified best practices help the public easily search for pertinent information.
One cause for concern related to meeting minutes. While many of the sites included budgets, resolutions and signed vendor contracts in the minutes of meetings, few also published this information separately in other clearly designated sections of the website. It is inconvenient for citizens to search through all recent meeting minutes to locate this important information. Government sites could be improved by developing a searchable area dedicated to budgets and contracts, which would allow for more efficient retrieval by constituents.
Public Records Information
Well-designed government webpages for public records requests should ease the burden on records custodians. FOG found that most sites provided a public records form or request section, which typically included instructions for submitting a successful written request. Governments that performed best on this category of the audit gave users more information on the availability of electronic records and provided a detailed breakdown and explanation of anticipated charges for different types of records.
Governmental bodies could add a tracking feature to websites, giving requestors the opportunity to check the status of pending requests. This would help citizens and journalists to quickly determine if their request has been received, is being reviewed or has been approved or denied. A tracking feature would also serve to free up time for custodians who must field calls from requestors seeking an update on their pending requests.
All government entities surveyed could enhance their sites by including suggested ways to reduce the charges for obtaining records. In some instances, websites were specifying and charging the maximum cost of $1.00 per page for any and all requests. Such high fees are often prohibitive for citizens and journalists alike. It could be argued that imposing maximum fees for all records sought effectively restricts access, making public records unavailable.
Contact Information and Other Frequently Sought Information
The availability of basic and commonly sought information is perhaps one of the biggest difference-makers in the FOG survey scores. The cities and counties that achieved the highest marks offered information such as tax rates, zoning data and contact information. It is helpful to provide a comprehensive list with all contact information for employees and elected officials in a separate section of the site. Additionally, the public will be able to accurately reach out to the right person if relevant contact listings are also available on individual topic pages. This will further save government employees time transferring and fielding calls from constituents needing to contact other people or departments.
Website Functionality Tools
Simple and user-friendly website designs rated highest on the FOG assessment. Inclusion of a search bar and a site index is critical for making sites functional for the public. Many government websites were not updated frequently and contained old information or inaccuracies. Keeping information up to date ensures that a website is useful and reduces confusion for site visitors. Moreover, the existence of dead links can cause frustration when citizens receive a “Page Not Found” error.
Government websites that are user-friendly, contain depth and breadth of public information and are well managed improve transparency and ease the workload for public employees. An investment in the development of a highly functional website will allow citizens to hold governments accountable and participate in public discourse.
Correction: In the initial release, McKinley County was omitted from the study. This oversight has been corrected, and McKinley County has been added to the website review.