One online dictionary defines transparency as "free from pretense or deceit," "easily detected or seen through" and "readily understood." However, too many government agencies at the local and state levels are only ostensibly transparent.
For example, the state-run Transparency Mississippi website claims to contain "a wealth of data available on the site that is searchable, viewable on screen and can also be printed for offline usage." It was a handy tool, although not very user-friendly. Sometime in the past year, however, the state switched to a new, even less friendly system. Not only is the new site difficult to navigate, but now government watchdogs who want a snapshot of, say, the past five years of government contracts, have to perform one search on the old site and a separate search on the new system, and then do some basic math.
Then, take the example of the Mississippi Secretary of State's campaign-finance report portal. Sure, the reports are all there for the public to view, just as state law requires, but there's no good way to search for all campaign donations from a particular contributor to get a good picture of who's throwing money around in our elections. There's another tool—which is fabulous—where the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics can break state donations down by donor; however, there can be a few days of lag time in getting information from the states.
First-world problems, to be sure. We recognize that we're well ahead of where we were even a decade ago. But we're nowhere near where we should be, especially if you look at organizations like the Center for Responsive Politics and its website, OpenSecrets.com, and the Sunlight Foundation, as well as other states' more advanced transparency websites, all of which provide evidence that the tools exist if governments are willing to invest in them.
We have said before that we support the Jackson City Council's dedication to implementing a new city-spending tracking service. Perhaps it's a bit of one-upsmanship, but Mayor Tony Yarber's recent announcement of an open-data project through Bloomberg Philanthropies and the aforementioned Sunlight Foundation could work well in tandem with the council's plan.
In order for these tools to work and represent true transparency, city officials can't just build a website and call it openness. A government-spending and accountability website is only as good as the quality and consistency of the information that it contains. It is only effective if the design is simple, intuitive and well-maintained.
We hope these are a part of the discussion when the mayor's open-data governing committee begins meeting in the coming weeks to develop what Mayor Yarber has indicated he wants to be the best city open-data site in the nation.