Local government is vital for the smooth running of our communities. Across the United States, there are nearly 90,000 local government bodies running cities and towns of different sizes. They form the connection between residents, businesses, and local laws and regulations.
To work efficiently, municipalities rely on the trust of their constituents. Establishing this kind of trust is impossible without transparency in local government. Dedicated software products help municipalities like yours increase their level of transparency and build stronger connections with your community. Read on to learn how your community could benefit.
What is Transparency in Local Government?
It is easy to think of governments as remote organizations that are out of touch with the life of everyday citizens. Local government is the opposite. Officials and employees in local government roles have an opportunity to change the lives of their residents every day. With that opportunity also comes a great responsibility to understand which issues really matter to residents and businesses in a community and how best to address them.
Some of these issues may be obvious to the municipality, but for others, local governments require the input of their citizens. That input will only come if residents, businesses, and local government employees trust each other. Trust is built over time, and one of its building blocks is local government transparency.
But what does transparency actually mean? According to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), transparency as a principle in local government “allows those affected by administrative decisions to know about results and about the process that led to decisions.” In other words, residents understand why they need to pay for pet licensing, for example. Businesses that have been denied an environmental health license understand what led to the decision and how to improve their business to meet the required criteria.
In addition, transparency means that citizens and businesses can see how the municipality manages its finances. Residents can access information to confirm the income of their local government through taxes and other fees. They can also see how this money is being spent across the community.
Without transparency, there can be no trust. And without trust, local governments will find it hard to work effectively for the benefit of their communities.
Why is Local Government Transparency so Important?
We mentioned above that transparency is the building block of trust between local governments and their residents. In this section, we will take a closer look at specific tasks municipal employees need to complete on a given day and how they relate to transparency.
Municipal governments take care of various licensing processes. They oversee the adherence to building regulations, waste collections, and environmental health rules as well as looking after zoning regulations and countless other functions. Most of these jobs involve some level of input from the community, often via an application process, followed by an investigation done by municipality staff before an outcome becomes available.
Residents applying for a permit to build an extension to their existing home will be hoping for a positive outcome in the form of a building permit. However, local zoning regulations may prohibit a certain aspect of the proposed extension. Perhaps the new part of the building is too high and unlawfully obstructs a neighbor’s view. When that is the case, residents need to trust that their municipality made the correct decision.
Transparent processes help achieve this level of trust by:
- Laying open the municipality’s decision-making process
- Highlighting relevant by-laws and other regulations
- Giving citizens a chance to appeal decisions that they believe need to be corrected
Most community projects rely on local companies’ and residents’ tax dollars for their funding. While the project may be handled by the municipality, citizens are paying for it indirectly. For that reason, it is only fair that they know how their money is being used and get a say in selecting projects with priority. Municipality officials should find it easy to provide this information as they make their decisions with the best interests of their citizens in mind.
Municipalities can also build trust by sharing their policies and decision-making processes with residents. If citizens take the time to conduct in-depth research, they may find that this kind of information is already available. However, making it easier to find critical policies and relevant process encourages citizens to become better informed and helps them engage with their community.
As a result, municipal employees will notice a greater level of cooperation between the administration and its residents. When citizens see that their government has their best interests at hand, they tend to become more involved and contribute to the benefit of the entire community. When that happens, everybody benefits.
How Can Local Governments Increase the Transparency of Their Operations?
Increasing transparency in local government begins with a mindset shift across the local administration. Once that is underway, technologies like municipality-specific software can facilitate the practical aspect of the transition.
Shifting a Municipality’s Mindset
A simple way of thinking of local governments is to imagine a well-functioning customer service organization. Providing value to the customer lies at the heart of everything that an organization does.
Local governments are not that different. Everything these organizations do should have the well-being, growth, and development of the community in mind. The only big difference between the municipality and the customer service organization is this: businesses operate with financial profit as their main target, whereas community development should trump growing profits for municipalities.
Shifting your municipality’s mindset from administration to citizen service will help the entire government body and its employees embrace transparency as a core value.
Using Technology to Support Practical Aspects of the Transition
Traditionally, local governments were hardly geared toward transparent working processes. Employees handled the paperwork for specific processes within their departments. If two departments needed to contribute to an application, chances are the applicant had to complete two separate sets of paperwork and make multiple appointments to complete the process.
Government-specific software like Mitchell Humphreys’ FastTrackGov® (FTG) has all the tools municipalities need to work more transparently. FTG was developed to increase the efficiency of municipality employees and manage community relations easily. Another explicit goal of this software is to boost residents’ satisfaction with their local officials and municipality workers.
How does the software accomplish that? Here are a few examples of the benefits your community could take advantage off:
- 24/7 accessibility: Allowing citizens to submit licensing applications and renewals online increases efficiency for employees and applicants. Applicants can submit their data when it suits them. Employees can review applications during their office hours and quickly request additional information or process the application.
- Increased visibility: Being able to follow application progress through various departments gives applicants greater insight into the municipality’s process. Applicants will also gain a better understanding of the entire process, and they can contact the relevant department directly if more information is needed.
- Streamlined working practices: While many of the advantages mentioned so far focus on the intersection of local government and its citizens, transparency begins internally. Software products like FTG allow municipal employees like code enforcement officers to maintain their schedule in a central location. Line managers know exactly where their teams are, and support staff can automatically add new appointments or update an existing schedule after a cancellation.
Every community is different in its needs and requirements. That is why we have designed FTG with flexibility in mind. Your local government does not need to fit the software. Instead, the software can be adjusted to meet your specific needs.
Our team at Mitchell Humphrey understands that no two communities are ever truly the same. But no matter the size of your municipality, no matter if you are operating in a big city or a small town, transparency is the key to successful relationships between citizens, businesses, and local governments.
Using powerful, customized software packages can help you increase transparency in every interaction without compromising the integrity of privileged information. The municipality’s and citizens’ data remains safe, yet easily accessible to the relevant parties to help streamline everything your local government team does.