5 Steps To Improve Local Government Transparency

Croydon Council in London effectively declared bankruptcy three times in two years. It owed £1.3 billion, which has impacted services and its budget going forward. Elected mayor Jason Perry blamed a host of factors for the problems faced by constituents as a result of this issue, including a lack of local government transparency. He said:

“The previous administration has left a legacy of unprecedented financial mismanagement, toxic bad debt and a lack of governance and transparency that shames Croydon and continues to have a long-lasting impact on the sustainability of our council.”

If there had been more transparency over the way the council had conducted itself, it might have been able to avoid the crippling debt that will affect local services for years to come. If you want to improve your local government transparency, this article provides a step-by-step guide.

What is local government transparency?

Local government transparency is the openness with which a local authority or council runs its affairs. It represents how much the citizens of that authority can find out about all aspects of local government, including finances, decision-making and more. 

Where bodies spend public money, it is right that those who provide the funds are allowed to see how they are being used. They sometimes have to have a say over the running of the council in accordance with their democratic right to elect officials. 

What are the benefits of transparency in local government?

There are many benefits to local government bodies embracing transparency in their operations. They include: 

BenefitExplanation
Promotes accountabilityIf council members know that their actions and decisions are on view to the public, they are more likely to take ownership of them and hold themselves accountable for their activities. Rather than sitting back, transparency encourages officials to be more proactive and show constituents how they contribute to the running of the local government body.  
Builds trust between the council and the publicWhen local government organisations make clear the reasons for the decisions that they make and detail exactly what they spend their budget on, the public is more likely to trust them. If these decisions happen in secret, people can be concerned that they do not follow due process. Even if constituents disagree with decisions, as long as they can see a transparent and fair process, they can trust that they were made on a legitimate basis
Fosters civic engagement and public participationTransparency is not only a window into the working of local government but also a door that allows the public to get involved. A transparent relationship welcomes public input into issues that affect them and engages citizens with the work of the council, leading to a better relationship between the parties. 
Helps to ensure ethical government operationsWhere there is a culture of transparency, it makes it less likely that unethical behaviour in local government can flourish. The open nature of the mechanics of the council helps to facilitate members making ethical choices, as they know that their actions will be scrutinised.  
Enhances public understandingOften, where there is little or no transparency, the public is not aware of the processes that take place within the local government. Due to delays in reporting, they might not even be sure about the policies and make-up of the council. Transparency allows them to understand how it works and what it means for their lives. 
Economic attractivenessAn open and transparent local government provides an attractive prospect for businesses that might look to move to the area. The relationship with the council is important and, where the council is unresponsive and isolated, this could be a concern to companies in relation to future operational and regulatory challenges. By engaging openly, you can encourage businesses to relocate to your area, creating new jobs and revenue. 

The 5 steps to improve local government transparency

1. Communicate more often

Communicating directly with citizens through social media is a great way to promote transparency and keep everyone informed about upcoming meetings, decisions and other council business. By doing so, you help citizens feel more connected and engaged with their local government.

Share your agendas, live stream your meetings and document your meeting procedures so that citizens can see democracy in action. This allows citizens to witness democracy in action and helps to dispel any suspicions that local authorities may be trying to hide something or avoid public scrutiny. By making meetings more accessible to constituents, you can build trust and encourage greater attendance. 

2. Provide online portals for the public

Your website shouldn’t just be there because you feel you should have one. You can use it as a valuable portal for all council business and for constituents to find helpful resources. 

As well as using dedicated software to host and live stream your meetings, make it easier for residents to find financial reports, progress updates on council projects and details of discussions and decisions. You can also show transparency by documenting the voting records of council members on the website. 

Ensure that the data you provide about local government work is well-organised, up-to-date and accurate. Citizens should be able to search it easily to find the information that they want in good time. This way, you maintain their trust that you are committed to openness and honesty. 

3. Foster a culture of transparency

Local government can only be truly transparent if there is a culture of transparency that runs throughout the organisation. This means that everyone who works for the council, from councillors and office staff to security personnel and beyond, must embed openness and honesty into their everyday work. 

Encourage staff to be accountable for their decisions and the work that they produce, making honest appraisals of what they could have done more effectively. Allow them to admit to mistakes without fear of reprisals, and reward transparent behaviour from staff. 

If transparency is shown to be valued throughout the government body, this will extend to the public-facing operations and increase trust levels with residents. 

4. Clearly explain local government finance

Finance is one of the most important areas of local government work when it comes to transparency. When handling public money, you need to be open and show that you are using it wisely and for the benefit of the citizens. People understandably get upset about waste and, worse, corruption. 

Transparency International found that two-thirds of people in the EU think that corruption is a problem in their country. Although local government corruption may not be as prevalent as national government wrongdoing, the OECD has found that it can still have a significant impact on citizens due to its visibility at the local level. For this reason, it's important to address any concerns about corruption and work towards building a more transparent and trustworthy system of governance.

To promote transparency and accountability in your financial reporting, it's important to provide clear and understandable financial information to citizens. By doing so, you can help them gain a better understanding of how budgets are established.

5. Gain feedback from citizens

Welcoming feedback is an excellent step towards promoting transparency in local governance. When citizens are given a voice and the opportunity to share their opinions, suggestions, and even criticisms, it shows that their representatives are truly invested in working for the community.

By actively listening to feedback, local councils can demonstrate that they are committed to representing the interests of the people they serve. This, in turn, fosters a sense of trust and openness, and citizens feel more connected and engaged in the local political process.

FAQ

Why is it important to share reports with citizens?

A local government organisation works on behalf of citizens, meaning that the residents deserve to know exactly what happens within the council. Having access to reports is a big step towards a high level of transparency.  

What is a citizen satisfaction survey?

The citizen satisfaction survey gathers data on the happiness or otherwise of citizens with the work of the local government body. In addition, it helps to gather feedback that can inform future planning and outreach programmes. 

How can transparency in local government increase public trust?

Transparency in local government can increase public trust by providing the public with access to information about government activities, policies, and decision-making processes. This leads to a better understanding of government operations and can reduce the potential for corruption and mismanagement. When the public has access to this information, they can hold the government accountable, which in turn builds trust and increases confidence in the government's ability to serve the community.

What is the role of the public in promoting transparency in local government?

The public plays an important role in promoting transparency in local government by being informed and engaged in the decision-making process. This can be achieved by participating in public meetings, making use of open government data and making their voice heard on transparency-related issues. The public can also help to hold the government accountable by reporting any potential violations of transparency laws and policies

How can transparency in local government improve decision-making?

When the public is more informed and engaged through local government transparency, they can provide valuable feedback and insights that can improve the quality of decisions being made by the local government. This feedback loop is helpful for both parties. 

What role do transparency and accountability play in reducing corruption in local government?

Transparency and accountability make it easier to detect and address any potential abuses of power or violations of the law, leading to improved public trust in government. When council officials know that the public can scrutinise their work, they are less likely to attempt corrupt activities.

What are some challenges to achieving transparency in local government?

Some of the challenges to achieving transparency in local government include resistance to change from government employees, lack of resources and funding, complex and outdated information systems, inadequate laws and policies and a lack of public awareness and engagement.

Conclusion

Local government transparency is essential in the climate of scrutiny in which we live. Authorities must be open to the public and honest about how they use citizens’ money and represent them in the discussions held and decisions made. 

iBabs helps to keep local government transparent with a meeting platform that allows you to live stream meetings, record decisions and even update your website with voting records for your council members. To find out how iBabs helps run secure and productive meetings that are transparent for your citizens, request a demo today.

References and further reading