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Best Practices Model for Transparency in Government

Transparency in government means an openness about government that fosters trust, honesty and collaboration. It allows citizens and taxpayers to get actively involved in government. Sunshine Review is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency. Their Sunny award recognizes governments that are doing an exemplary job at proactively disclosing information to taxpayers. Among the winners last year (2012) was St. Johns County, Florida. The county’s website was one of 6,000 sites that were graded. The award, which honors the most transparent government websites in the nation, went to 214 government entities. That means that only one in 28 were recipients of the award. St. Johns County is located in northeast Florida. In the 2010 census, its population was 190,039. St. Augustine is the county seat. The county is considered a part of the Greater Jacksonville area.


County Administrator Michael Wanchick 

Much of the credit for this award goes to Michael D. Wanchick, St. John’s County Administrator since July 2007. Prior to taking the position, Mr. Wanchick worked for nine years as the Assistant City Manager for Development Services in the city of Richardson, Texas. Other positions he has held in Florida include Director of Strategic Planning and Growth Management for Broward County, Administrator of the Broward County Planning Council and planning analyst in the city of Clearwater. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science, a master’s degree in urban affairs/public administration and a master’s degree in management from the University of South Florida. His studies in organizational development and change, and his experience make him uniquely qualified to serve as a change agent for transparency in government.

Wanchick says the focus of his administration is on providing core services and programs, and offering residents and businesses the highest possible value for their tax dollar. In addition, other priorities include increasing organizational efficiency and effectiveness, attracting quality economic development and creating high paying jobs for St. Johns County. There is another priority that he is especially proud of – transparency at St. Johns County government.


Transparency as an ongoing process

Wanchick stresses the ongoing process of transparency. He knows that a transparent government can not be put in place and then left there for administrators and staff to go on to other things. Transparency is ongoing and records must be updated daily. Technology training for transparency is also ongoing. The flow of information, according to Wanchick must now be “same day” information. Under Wanchick’s leadership, each St. Johns County employee is trained to understand the importance of transparency and to release information to taxpayers quickly.

Another change Wanchick has made is to make sure information flows through each department, not through the administrative office, as it had been done for years. Wanchick found that information could be retrieved and sent out faster if it was done department wide. Each department now has the training and experience to do that. They are “transparency ready.”

Wanchick overhauled and changed the county’s website, making more information available giving citizens a better understanding of how their government works and how they can more quickly obtain the information they desire.


The Sunny Award

Editors at Sunshine Review graded government websites according to content available on government websites and sought information on items such as budgets, meetings, financial audits, public records and taxes. Said Michael Barnhart, President of Sunshine Review “We would like to congratulate St. Johns County for being a champion for transparency and serving as a leader to every state and local government around the nation. “ (Office of public affairs, St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners publication.)

The St. Johns County Website contains the following information:

  • Elected officials – Officials need to be engaged in regular dialogue with their constituents and be accessible. All county commissioners are listed with contact information.
  • Meetings – This is one of the ways the public can have a true dialogue with their representatives. Board meetings are posted. Agendas and minutes are available and are archived back through 2000.
  • Administration – Administrative staff are knowledgeable resources, and a source of constituent services. Toward that end, contact information for county administration is posted.
  • Budget – Budgets give a clear picture of what government plans to do for the year. Taxpayers can see the priorities and make comparisons to performance to past years. St. Johns County budget is available, and is archived to 2005.
  • Public Records – Includes public records search and public records request forms.
  • Contracts – The public has a right to examine contracts. Did the government choose the best solution for its constituents? This kind of question can be answered by reviewing contracts. In St. Johns County, all contracts are online.
  • Zoning – Building permits are posted and zoning information is posted.
  • Audits – When citizens review an audit, it gives them a sense of the honesty about their government. Did audits reveal if officials kept their promises? An audit will reveal this. In St. Johns County, annual financial reports are posted, and audits are archived to 2008.
  • Taxes – Tax information helps those who plan to move or sell their home, and also reflects the cost of living in the area. Local tax information is available, and a tax records search is available. In addition, Taxes can be paid online.

Wanchick is quick to give credit to his staff and employees, who have embraced transparency readiness, for the Sunny Award. He also praises The St. Augustine County Commissioners, who have supported his efforts to keep the citizenry informed.


Not a one-way street

Another prominent feature of transparency, one that is too often forgotten, is the responsibility of residents. When information is given to them in a government website, it is their responsibility to work through it, and to take the time to understand what they are reading. Just as government employees need to be responsible in providing information, residents and taxpayers need to be responsible in going over the information. Wanchick stresses the point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. He urges citizens not to make quick judgments when going over information on any government website. When residents are responsible in their reading of information on a website, Wanchick says that a truly rewarding two-way dialogue between government and taxpayer citizens takes place.


Author: Don D. Berglund is Associate Professor and Director, of the Public Administration Program at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fl. His teaching and research interests are in the areas of state and local government, immigration reform, and organization behavior. 


Image courtesy of http://rave-reviews-home-staging.com/category/blogs/home-staging-st-johns-county/.




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