The Village of Oak Lawn significantly improved its online transparency grade based on the village’s new website that is designed to give taxpayers more accessibility to basic financial and government participatory information.
The Illinois Policy Institute’s local transparency project is based on the premise that proactive transparency in the digital age allows citizens to become educated participants in local government and putting a stop to corruption and wasteful spending.
Last May, the village’s old website scored a dismal 37.9 percent or “F” grade, sandwiching Oak Lawn somewhere between Cicero and Decatur. The village improved slightly to 41.5 percent on a second audit, but still received an “F” rating.
Since the new website’s soft opening in late December, Oak Lawn’s online transparency rating has leaped to 86.1 percent, and is now on the “B” honor roll.
“That’s an increase of almost 50 points from the last time I graded it,” Brian Costin said, director of government reform for the Illinois Policy Institute. “[The village has] been adding additional things to the website over time and has improved substantially in the last month.”
Mayor Sandra Bury, who campaigned on a platform of government transparency, announced the village’s new transparency score during Tuesday’s board meeting.
The improved score is the first time the village has voluntarily put itself under the scrutiny of an independent third-party that didn’t come in the form of a federal subpoena.
“Our goal is to reach 100 percent as soon as possible,” Bury said. “The new website gives us that flexibility.”
The goal of the local government transparency project is to make Illinois, the nation’s third most corrupt state, more transparent. Since the project was launched, Costin said that IPI had graded over 300 out of Illinois’s 7,000 local taxing bodies, with appalling results.
IPI also offers a Sunshine Award to those government entities that wish to be audited and graded against a 10-point transparency checklist designed to provide a best practices framework to improve local government transparency.
Local government websites are graded on such key factors as posting contact information for elected officials, public meeting notices, Freedom of Information Act request forms, public records, budgets, audits, contracts, compensation, even lobbying and tax revenue.
“Any government entity can volunteer to be graded,” Costin said.
Oak Lawn’s closest neighbor to achieve a 100-percent score is Orland Park, followed by Tinley Park at 92 percent.
To achieve 100-percent, the perfect scorers include five years’ worth of public and and financial records on their respective websites, as well as following other IPI-recommended practices.
“It’s just 24/7 online transparency,” Costin said. “We don’t get into FOIAs or the open meetings act, but there are requirements for making both of those available online.”
Oak Lawn's 80-percent-plus score now makes the village eligible for a Sunshine Award.
Bury says that residents will still have to put some work into searching for documents. Eventually, she hopes to put more information online formerly available only through the Freedom of Information Act, such as the village manager’s contract, one of the more popular FOIA requests.
“Whether real or perceived that things are being concealed makes people mistrustful of each other and elected officials,” Bury said. “The more we can be up front and open, the better it is for everyone.”