Our Views: Ranking states on sunshine

There is encouraging news and bad news in a new national ranking of state and local governments according to their performance in advancing public transparency.

Louisiana’s state government got a B-minus grade for the quality of its government websites from the Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based nonprofit group that advocates for greater government transparency. However, Louisiana’s overall ranking fell to a C-plus, when the general quality of parish government websites was factored in to Louisiana’s cumulative grade. In another category, Louisiana rated a D-plus for the quality of the websites operated by its major school districts.

The nonpartisan group used 10 criteria in assessing how well government websites shine a light on government activities. These include ease of use, and to what degree the website includes information on budgeting, contracts, audits, contacting government officials and securing public documents.

No state scored a cumulative grade of A in the Sunshine Review rankings. The highest scores went to California, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, which received a B-plus.

“State government websites outperformed local government websites,” the group noted in its report. “States continue to struggle with proactively disclosing lobbying data, how to obtain public records, and with increasing the ease of finding supplemental data. Both counties and cities struggled with reporting the cost of government sector lobbying costs, publishing contracts and disclosing how to obtain government records. School districts failed to comprehensively report contract agreements, how to obtain public records, publish audits, or provide state statements about their funding.”

Maintaining government websites with timely, detailed information costs time and money. At a time of tight budgets for state and local governments and school districts, there’s even more of a temptation to scrimp on this kind of communication with citizens.

But in the digital age, government at all levels must make this kind of public accountability a priority.

Government websites, however well-designed and utilized, can’t be the only method of advancing transparency. In a state such as Louisiana, where many citizens still lack Internet access, making government information available through more-traditional methods, such as paper documents, is also necessary.

The Sunshine Review report suggests that there is still much work to be done in making government more open and accountable. We hope public officials heed the call.