One of the clear results of November's elections and their aftermath is that many citizens have a profound mistrust of the institutions that govern their lives.
Among the most effective ways government can counter that mistrust is by being transparent about what it is doing and how it is spending taxpayers' hard-earned dollars. And one of the most user-friendly and accessible ways governments can provide that information is on their websites.
So how are New York state's counties doing in their effort to provide information to the public on their websites?
More than half of the county websites in New York state are failing to provide citizens access to information about audits, contracts and lobbying activity and many fall well short of current best practice for government websites, a statewide audit by the USA TODAY
Network has found.
Access to public information is the theme of Sunshine Week, which runs from today, Sunday, through Saturday. Founded by the American Society of News Editors in 2005, the media-led initiative calls attention to laws requiring government openness and transparency. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and others interested in the public's right to know.
While Dutchess County scored high with an 11.5 out of 14 points, Ulster County was lower at 9.5 points.
The categories USA TODAY Network reporters and editors used to assess the available information on the 57 county websites outside of New York City included the availability of:
- Budget documents, preferably several years worth to enable comparisons.
- Meeting information including agendas and minutes.
- Contact details for elected officials.
- Contact details for administrative officials.
- Access to public records (including how to file Freedom of Information requests and access to building and zoning permits).
- Access to financial audits.
- Contract information including bids and contracts for purchases from vendors.
- Information about lobbying associations the county is connected with, or lobbyists the county has retained to advance its interests.
- Comprehensive tax information, including historical property tax data and school tax rates.
"This is the kind of accountability that we would expect municipalities to provide." said Theresa Pardo, director of the Center for Technology in Government in Albany, a research institution in the University at Albany that offers guidance and expertise on information technology to government entities.
"This...is an artifact of siloed systems," Pardo said about the findings that many sites were missing categories.
"What we’ve already seen is that in the largest cities in New York state, they’re completely disparate. There isn’t a central IT group that oversees online standards."
"As public officials we’re always in a position to improve current practices," said Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties. "This (Gannett/USA TODAY Network) survey reflects some of the areas where there can be improvement."
Among other findings:
►Only seven counties had complete or partial information in all nine of the categories that the USA TODAY audit examined: Cortland, Erie, Genesee, Livingston, Madison, Nassau, and Westchester; Livingston and Nassau were the only sites outside of New York City to obtain a perfect score of 14.
►The seven counties that performed worst in the survey were St Lawrence, Otsego, Schoharie, Chenango and Putnam, Herkimer and Hamilton.
►County websites performed better in criteria related to budget and meeting agendas and minutes and staff contact information, and those criteria were given greater weight in the audit.
"We have a very diverse state in New York..." said Acquario, referring to the wide range of revenues across local government and a reference to the low performance of Adirondack counties with small populations.
Acquario said that the survey results would serve as a useful tool to enable county administrators to compare their standards with others.
This online map and database enables visitors to search for counties and see how they scored in the key categories.
(The five boroughs of New York City were treated separately because their information is all consolidated under a single site.)
A report card on local government
A statewide evaluation of county websites was carried out in 2012
, and this 2017 review was undertaken using similar criteria
by USA TODAY Network editors and reporters as part of Sunshine Week
, a national initiative that promotes the importance of public access to government information.
Dutchess County's website was missing lobbying information and only partially collected tax and meeting information.
"I think the county website is pretty extensive with the information available," said Marc Molinaro, Dutchess County executive . "We've made public access a priority, and we're consistently adding new information and expanding our public access tools."
Responding to the missing lobbying information, Molinaro said the county is rarely lobbied.
The county is in the process of redesigning the website to make it more user-friendly, as well as launching a Think Differently website focused on consolidating resources for people with special needs, Molinaro said. These are expected to launch this year, he added.
Ulster County partially collected meeting and contract information and was missing audits, lobbying and tax information.
Michael Hein, Ulster County executive, said the county is dedicated to transparency in how it operates.
"As the technology evolves, we must evolve to provide people with key data and maximize transparency," Hein said.
Reporter Abbott Brant was hunting for budget documents in Ontario County: "I could not find the budget in any specific tab or section, but once I typed "budget" into the search bar it was easily accessible."
A side-by-side comparison
of how the 57 counties outside of in 2017 compared with five years ago showed significant improvements in their digital shopfronts.
The good news: All 57 counties posted information about elected officials and public meetings on their websites. More than 90 percent posed information on taxes and budgets available online, and roughly 80 percent provide access to some or all public records through their websites.
The bad news: A majority fell short when it came to providing information on audits or copies of contracts. Only 10 counties provide information about lobbying activities; an important insight into the political connections that local governments are spending money on.
"Secrecy feeds cynicism ... new technologies allow the local government to give citizens a birds’ eye view of government operations." said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, NYPIRG. "Using technologies allows the policy makers and elected officials to let the public into the policy-making process."
Horner says that younger voters don't expect to have to "go back to horse and buggy days" and use Freedom of Information requests to access information.
In fact, smaller, nimbler organizations are moving faster than local governments and posting vast amounts of data online. New York nonprofit OpenTheBooks.com
captured spending within 1,350 units of state municipal governments flowing into 1.4 million vendors by sending out a barrage of Freedom of Information requests.
Chief Executive Officer Adam Andrzejewski estimates his organization has tracked $70 out of every $100 spent in the state since 2015.
"We are helping to enforce open records law across New York. Our efforts will not stop until we have every dime taxed spent at every level of government online and in an easy to review format. Our goal is to make the low-level Freedom of Information Act request obsolete in the internet age."
Acquario said that New York local government "...is vast, with thousands and thousands of units" and that low survey scores shouldn't imply that local officials were actively thwarting access to information. He also said that NYSAC was strongly supportive of the state's Freedom of Information provisions and the work of the Committee on Open Government.
Horner from NYPRIG says that technology should help overcome bureaucratic hurdles and not add to public perceptions of government secrecy.
Why it happens
Counties are most likely to fall short when it comes to posting fast-changing information like contracts, said Pardo. Even if counties have a commitment to information transparency, they can fall prey to "siloed systems" Pardo says, and financial information often operates in isolation compared with the other day-to-day activities of local government.
As New York localities move toward more shared services like finance, the ability to call up data at the local level should be one of the key design goals, Pardo said.
All the stakeholders acknowledge the challenge of putting large amounts of information online, including the costs associated with updating outmoded IT infrastructure.
Jeanne Brown is project director of the Digital Towpath Cooperative, a consortium of around 150 small, mostly rural central New York local governments who pool IT costs to provide online capability despite limited resources.
"Small local governments often have small, part-time staffs. Many lack technology expertise. Through the shared service, they have access to expertise and security measures they cannot easily provide for themselves." Brown said.
NYSAC's Acquario pointed to turnover in local administrators and the need for constant training as another hurdle.
"I don’t want the property tax cap to be a reason for a deficiency..." in providing quality information online said Acquario; referring to the fiscal challenges facing counties and their reliance on county sales tax to fund local programs above and beyond mandates from Albany.
What can be done to improve access?
On the information gaps identified by the USA TODAY Network survey, Acquario of NYSAC says that counties should be posting information on audits and lobbying relationships. "... contracts should certainly be posted, and I think that Sunshine Week, in light of the findings of the survey, points to the potential for (more) government training around Open Meeting Laws and Freedom of Information.
"The state should continue to help train local government. Training and education is paramount."
Acquario said that he noticed while many of the sites supplied contact information for elected officials, but he would encourage his membership to make clearer what county committees those officials were assigned to as result of the USA TODAY survey.
The Center for Technology in Government's Theresa Pardo says that documents like contracts and audits are often duplicated in other locations and that counties could link to entities like the state Comptroller's Office if they can't host the information themselves.
Pardo points to the website for Fairfax County, Virginia
, as the gold standard for local government websites if the commitment is there.
Horner from NYPIRG argues that open access rests with commitments from the 'political elites' in the state, who control most of the resources; a reference to the Albany bureaucracy. With polling showing high levels of concern over issues like corruption, Horner said, the state should "open their purse strings" to support efforts to get more local government information online.
"Hopefully this (USA TODAY Network) survey opens up the demand for more access to information," said Horner.
Other New York state organizations are also gearing up to provide additional insights into the workings of local government financials.
has been filing bulk FOIL requests for information on the checkbook transactions of 2500 local government entities for financial years 2015 and 2016. Citizens can now review two years of 'where their local tax dollar was spent' on our website: http://www.openthebooks.com/search/?PensionCode=3756
. Our local salary and pension data go back to 2008.
The nonprofit organization Reclaim New York
is about to launch an ambitious transparency indexing tool
developed in partnership with the Madrid-based platform Dyntra
. "All counties, cities, towns, villages, and school districts are listed and ready to be evaluated by citizens and public officials. As the entities are evaluated, they will move up in the rankings," according to Program Manager Candice DiLavore.
Journal reporter Geoff Wilson contributed to this story