Let the sun shine in on KC's government spending
The Kansas City Star
If citizens want to report a pothole or graffiti in New York City, there’s an app for that. But Kansas Citians don’t yet have that tool.
Sacramento’s website discloses all the bids by companies on public contracts; Kansas City’s doesn’t.
And if residents want details on how taxpayer subsidies are doled out, Kansas City’s website is bereft of most of that information.
No wonder Kansas City gets a so-so “C” grade in a new, comprehensive report titled, “Transparency in city spending: Rating the availability of online government data in America’s largest cities.” It was released by the OSPIRG Foundation, a group that says it “works to protect consumers and promote good government.”
The report is a good reminder of how essential it is to encourage open government and the public’s right to know. Starting today, The Star along with other news media, libraries, nonprofits and others will celebrate Sunshine Week, a national effort to support freedom of information.
Kansas City area residents have a right to know how governments at all levels — from cities to school boards to library systems — are using public dollars.
Those governments have the obligation, especially in the digital age, to make that information readily accessible to the public. The less secrecy, the better.
Back to the OSPIRG report: It makes a strong case that active citizens can directly tell officials about problems in their cities. The best city websites allow residents to make sure reported troubles are taken care of and to keep the pressure on until they are.
Cities that put online a mountain of detailed data about their budgets open themselves up to scrutiny by alert citizens who can review the numbers and help prevent waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.
The OSPIRG study — found at www.ospirgfoundation.org — contains some tough grades.
Kansas City earned a “C,” with 73 of 100 possible points.
The foundation evaluated cities on issues including whether they posted annual budgets (all did) to how easily users could look for information on which vendors received city funds. Kansas City’s website — at www.kcmo.org — got a zero in that category. The city got only half the points available for online 311 service requests because the city doesn’t let people check to see how all those requests are handled.
Overall, Kansas City ended up 14th best of the 30 large U.S. cities rated by the foundation.
On top of the heap were New York City and Chicago with near-perfect scores of 98 points. Along with San Francisco (90), the cities with “A” grades were praised for “easy-to-access, encompassing information on government spending.”
Other cities that rated higher than Kansas City included Cincinnati, Denver, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Houston.
Among the 16 cities that scored lower than Kansas City were Dallas (64 points), Minneapolis (54), Atlanta (46), St. Louis (46) and Cleveland (41). The last three cities all got “F” grades, partly because they are “keeping citizens in the dark on which companies and nonprofits receive taxpayer funds.”
Kansas City officials said last week they have been trying to upgrade the city’s website, such as adding a new portal filled with statistical information, including links to City Manager Troy Schulte’s proposed 2013-14 budget. The site is at data.kcmo.org.
Another example of the city’s enhanced online presence came during the recent heavy snowstorms. An interactive online map showed where city snowplows had been. Even with a few reported glitches, the map provided solid information to many residents.
Going forward, Kansas City needs to imitate a lot of ideas other cities already have pursued. Some are in the works, city officials say.
The app idea from New York City would be a great tool in the hands of local smartphone users.
Kansas Citians also should be able to see a lot more data on the hundreds of millions in public incentives flowing to private companies.
The city needs to make sure its new data portal is clearly organized, too.
All of these steps and others are essential so Kansas City — and other local governing units — will let the sun shine on how they are making important decisions and spending tax dollars.