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
The categories USA TODAY Network reporters and editors used to assess the available information on the 57 county websites outside 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, which showed 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 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, 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.
In the case of Sullivan County for example, USA TODAY Network reporter Jorge Fitz-Gibbon went looking for audits: "Had to search site for ‘audits’ to find the page — which listed two audits — the last one in 2013 for the 2012 fiscal year. Department of Audit and Control link under ‘Departments’ listed no reports or audits."
Reporter Meaghan McDermott surveyed meeting information for Allegany County: "Has minutes and agendas for committees and board of legislators ... full calendar available."
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."
However, even in the case of Livingston County — which performed well on all the indicators — information on audits and contracts were not easy to find and could only be accessed by use of the site’s search tool; so users need to be pretty determined in their efforts.
Livingston County administrator Ian Coyle said that the county was always looking to put "more and more" information online and connect it to social media such as Facebook.
Coyle pointed to the publication of county collective bargaining agreements as a recent example of that ongoing effort.
The county uses a third-party company, Civic Plus
— that caters specifically to local — government to overhaul its site based around analysis of the most visited pages: Board Meetings, Budgets, Bids and RFPs and Employment.
A side-by-side comparison
of the 57 counties outside New York City in 2017 vs. five years ago showed most had made 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 bird’s-eye view of government operations," said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, or 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 to 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 (and) 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 (Law) 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 NYPIRG 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 such as 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 such as 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.
Livingston County’s Ian Coyle said that putting more information online had resulted in some small-level efficiencies. Being able to point people to the site for tax, bids and RFPs and even dog control saved staff time, although any cost savings were difficult to quantify.
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 2,500 local government entities for fiscal 2015 and 2016. Citizens can now review two years of where their tax dollars were spent at openthebooks.com/search/?PensionCode=3756
. 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.
More on how each county website fared in the USA TODAY Network survey
Cortland: Almost perfect score and added four additional categories: audits, contracts, lobbying and public records.
Clinton: Good job with posting tax information back to 1978, now let’s get some audits up there.
Dutchess: An impressive performer but needs to start showing lobbying information.
Erie: Beats out Dutchess because of more disclosure about lobbying.
Genesee: Near perfect score, much improved.
Livingston and Nassau: A perfect 14/14, thanks to helpful search tools in a few categories.
Madison: Right on Livingston and Nassau’s heels.
Schuyler: You really lifted your game, didn’t you?
Tioga: A strong improvement in key areas; needs lobbying information.
Tompkins: Could have been a contender. Very close, but no cigar.
Wayne: Close to the top. Contracts are hard to find and no lobbying information.
Westchester: Should be the gold standard in state, but was penalized for incomplete audit and lobbying information.
Cattaraugus: Budgets, meetings and public records significantly boosted ranking compared with 2012.
Cayuga: Now posting audits and public records.
Chautauqua: Public records added, no contracts.
Columbia: Budgets, public records and improved tax information all added since 2012.
Franklin: More transparency with grants and public records.
Fulton: Big additions in crucial areas like budgets, public records and taxes. Needs to update meeting information from 2015!
Greene: Contract and lobbying information still the weak spot.
Jefferson: Nice work getting budgets and public records information out there.
Lewis: No audits, but great progress across the board otherwise.
Montgomery: Playing in the big leagues. Now add lobbying information and it’ll be you up there with Nassau and Livingston!
Saratoga: Getting the budgets out there was a classy move.
Wyoming: Among the biggest improvers. Don’t give up now! Next priority is your public records page.
Delaware: Added tax information.
Orange: Added public records information.
Suffolk: Good job getting the public records out there, shame your budget information is too hard to find.
Same old, same old
Albany, Allegany, Broome and Seneca: Not much different.
Chemung, Ontario and Orleans: Thanks for playing.
Essex: No upcoming meeting agendas posted and no information about FOIL.
Schenectady: Don’t copy Essex County’s approach to FOIL.
Monroe and Oswego: Only way to do better is to post audits and lobbying information.
Rockland: As above, and contracts.
Oneida: Doing better than Monroe by posting audits.
Rensselaer: Not much has changed, but at least you still have the audits out there.
Steuben: Information on elected officials could be clearer.
Sullivan: You’re just in cruise control aren’t you? Would only take a few tweaks to get you to the top.
Yates: Just ticking over.
Chenango: Only the 2016 adopted budget available? Really?
Hamilton: Was bottom of the rankings in 2012 and has lifted its game marginally, but still missing the mark by a fair margin.
Herkimer: Only marginally better than the above.
Niagara: Not much has improved, and key areas of information still are missing.
Schoharie: Better on the budgets but there’s still plenty of room for improvement in all other areas.
Warren: Good job with the audits. Poor FOIL information and a fail on contracts, lobbying and tax transparency.
Washington: Traded out taxes for audits but otherwise similar to Warren.
Onondaga: Has the names of the county executive and the chief fiscal officer, but good luck finding other administrative contacts.
Otsego: Looks like you did better five years ago.
St. Lawrence: We wanted to double-check the results but your site was offline at time of publication.
Ulster: Why drop the tax information?
How we did the audit
USA TODAY Network editors and reporters used the same survey form to assess each of the state’s county websites. The benchmark for the report card was based on the same criteria used five years ago in a statewide evaluation of municipal websites by the now defunct Sunshine Review, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency. The results of that survey in 2012
are still available on the Ballotpedia site and form a benchmark for whether counties have improved their transparency over the past five years.
The criteria we used to assess the county websites were whether information in the following categories was available:
•Public records (including FOIL information and permits)
Watchdog education reporter Justin Murphy will demonstrate how parents or other interested citizens can get public information about their school or school district through a variety of local and state websites. He will cover test scores, teacher performance, financial information and meeting materials. Bring your questions!
When: 7 to 8.30 p.m. Thursday, March 16.
Where: Third Presbyterian Church, 4 Meigs St., Rochester.