Opinion: The open government illusion

From Governing: The easier it is for us to find important information about cities, counties and states, the better we’re able to report on topics of interest to our readers. But transparency isn’t just about us. It can help citizen organizations, good government bodies, advocacy groups, the press at large and even the general public. What’s more, accessible information makes it easier for legislators and city council members to drill down to the facts, creating more capacity for informed decision-making.

To be sure, progress has been made on a number of transparency fronts, and we certainly appreciate the additional data we’re able to find easily each year. That said, from our personal experience and conversations with experts in the field, much of the talk about heightened transparency in government is more rhetoric than reality.

Take so-called “online spending transparency,” or Web-based checkbooks that offer a clear and simple way to see where tax dollars are going. All 50 states have them. Optimally users would get, according to the nonprofit U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a host of “checkbook-level information about expenditures including those made through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending.”

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