RALEIGH — Yadkin County is one of only three North Carolina counties to have achieved an “A” in transparency from NCTransparency.com, a website launched by the John Locke Foundation in July 2009 to encourage governmental entities to improve their openness to public scrutiny.
Citizens upset by taxpayer bailouts, stimulus spending, and rising government debt increasingly have demanded answers from officials at all levels of government about how their tax dollars are being spent. They have voiced frustration over the lack of transparency in legislative and public policy decisionmaking.
NCTransparency.com provides a single point of access for North Carolinians to locate documents and reports available online from more than 700 different state and local government entities. Among the 24 important baseline documents or reports that, at a minimum, should be available to citizens and taxpayers, JLF researchers determined the grades by separating the online resources that apply to certain entities but not to others and weighing the relative worth of each resource.
After Yadkin County officials saw their initial grade was a “D,” they worked quickly to improve their score. County Manager Aaron Church told Carolina Journal that they looked at the categories on the NCTransparency.com website and decided to update Yadkin County’s website to match those categories exactly. “We want to be A+,” Church said.
Kory Swanson, JLF’s executive vice president, commended Church in advancing the county’s grade from a “D” to an “A,” especially since Yadkin is a small county without a lot of resources.
“Only three people did the work,” Church said, “but we still have more to do. We’ve budgeted to be more transparent in Fiscal Year 2011-12.”
Mecklenburg and Wake, the state’s largest and second largest counties respectively, are the other two counties that scored an “A.” Each has more than 900,000 residents, in contrast to Yadkin with just over 38,000, according to the latest data from the North Carolina Office of Budget and Management.
“Doing this has forced us to get more organized, and we think it’s a good thing,” Church said.
A review of the county’s website shows a “Transparency” tab. Within the transparency section, the “budget information” category has received the most “hits.” Even employees are finding it’s a lot easier to go to the website now, Church said, so that may account for some sections having a higher number of hits.
Along with accessibility, JLF rates entities on the usefulness of online data. Resources provided in Portable Document Format (.pdf), as a scanned image, or with embedded text help an entity’s score less than providing them in HTML or in an online database.
Although many of the resources Yadkin County has made available are not yet in the preferred format and a few are missing, Swanson said the county’s website mirrors the NCTransparency.com website categories precisely.
What makes Yadkin County’s efforts so impressive is not just that it has done this with limited resources, but that officials continue to work on improving the accessibility of resources and alert citizens if something is missing so they don’t have to keep looking for it, Swanson said.
For example, in the link for the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report category, Church said a document tells citizens that the county doesn’t produce this type of report but that the information can be found under the “Audit Reports” category. County contracts are not yet on the website because certain information must be redacted before the contracts are posted.
As a result of this effort, county staff will use the NCTransparency.com categories as “the main way to file documents in the future,” Church said.
Further bolstering their commitment to transparency, the county hopes to launch its new website by the end of this year. “We’re getting quotes from Munis on how our website can be automatically updated as contract, budget, revenue, and other items change,” Church said, adding that Durham County’s website does that.
Munis software is an enterprise resource planning solution from Tyler Technologies that many public sector entities use to manage financial and human resource functions.
Some jurisdictions have resisted participating in the transparency project or said that they think placing some of the resources online is not important, Swanson said. Others, however, like Yadkin County, have taken transparency very seriously.
Karen McMahan is a contributor to Carolina Journal.