RALEIGH — Taxpayers throughout North Carolina will have an easier time keeping tabs on their state and local governments, thanks to NCTransparency.com, a new Web site produced by the John Locke Foundation.
“When applied to government, transparency means being able to see what elected representatives and bureaucrats are doing with the tax money they take from citizens,” said Joseph Coletti, JLF Fiscal and Health Care Policy Analyst. “In the past few years there has been a change in what citizens find acceptable in the way of government transparency.”
“In the age of the Internet and digital technology, citizens are demanding their state, local and national governments provide online access to the basic information they must have in order to make decisions as responsible citizens,” Coletti added.
NCTransparency.com helps serve that citizen demand by grading state agencies, municipal and county governments, and public school systems. “We determined that there are 24 important baseline documents or reports that, at the least, should be available to citizens and taxpayers,” Coletti said. “With that baseline in place, we evaluated hundreds of government entities at the state and local level. It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that many government entities earned poor grades.”
Gov. Beverly Perdue promoted transparency efforts last year while campaigning for office. “Though the governor has discussed the need for greater transparency, state agencies should not be proud of their report card,” Coletti said. “None of the 22 state agencies we graded earned an A or B. Only the N.C. Department of Public Instruction earned a C. Most agencies earned D grades, and a half dozen posted scores of F.”
Local governments fared a little better, Coletti said. “No local government entity earned an A, but several offered enough online access to information to earn B grades,” he said. “Asheville, Cary, Charlotte, and Pinehurst are on that list, along with the Wake County Public School System. Buncombe, Cabarrus, Catawba, Chatham, and Mecklenburg counties also earned B grades.”
Visitors to NCTransparency.com will see those top scorers on the home page, along with the counties, cities, and school systems that earned the lowest grades. The main page also highlights one state agency chosen randomly.
Easy-to-use links from the home page will help taxpayers find more information about individual government entities, Coletti said. “The site also allows people to see how their local government and school system stacks up against others across North Carolina.”
Grades are weighted to reflect access to the most important information, Coletti said. “One of the most important pieces of government transparency is online access to the budget,” he said. “Budget access gets twice the weight of some other items. The more resources a government entity has available online, the higher its grade, and the more of the most important documents available, even higher the grade.”
Digging even deeper, JLF analysts weighted grades based on taxpayers’ ability to use online information, Coletti said. “Data that can be analyzed online and downloaded is valued most,” he said. “That option deserves a higher grade than a scanned-in PDF document that cannot be searched.”
In addition to budget information, governments earn points for providing information in areas such as contracts, health care expenses, capital and transportation improvement plans, audits, revenue collections, and salaries of the highest-paid employees. School systems also earn points for online access to test results, school enrollment figures, and information about free and reduced-price lunch programs.
NCTransparency.com is designed to be more than just a static report card, Coletti said. “The John Locke Foundation created the Web site in an effort to encourage transparency among North Carolina’s government entities,” he said. “It connects citizens to important information available online and also points out important information that is not available now.”
“Some states and localities nationwide have embraced the transparency movement and have taken advantage of communication technologies unavailable 10 or 20 years ago,” Coletti added. “Others, though, including many in North Carolina, have been slow to adapt to these new citizen demands. We hope NCTransparency.com will help convince more government leaders that it’s time to let in the sunshine.”