By Benjamin Yount
Illinois is the worst in the nation when it comes to funding ts pensions, paying billions in old bills and keeping its governors out of prison. But the state is among the best in telling people about its many problems.
The Sunshine Review ranks Illinois among the top five most-transparent states in the country, joining California, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington in getting a B+ for open government.
But that B+ is closer to a gold star for effort rather than a passing grade for providing voters with useful public information.
Kristin McMurray, managing editor for Sunshine Review, said her team looked at “the availability of data.”
McMurray said the research looked to see if states, counties and cities had archived three years of budgets and audits online, including meeting times and locations and contact information for most public officials.
“We do not just focus on financial transparency,” McMurray said. “I believe that Sunshine Review’s checklist evaluates the general ‘health’ of a government entity’s website.”
David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform sees a difference between making information public and making it useful.
“Putting big data dumps online is not the same as providing the info people want to have access to,” Morrison said.
The ICPR did its own review of government transparency and came to a much different conclusion.
“We conducted a FOIA review last year,” Morrison said, “and we found most (government) agencies ignored our requests or did not get back to us in the time allowed under law.”
Morrison said he doesn’t want to push dueling transparency reports, but he says there’s a basic difference between available information and useful information.
“I want to applaud the government for making their file cabinets public,” Morrison added. “But that’s not enough. Agencies need to answer questions, as well.”
McMurray said the Sunshine Review audit is a step in that direction.
“Our hope is that citizens will use this information to hold their government accountable and become engaged at a state and local level,” said McMurray.
Illinois posts its budgets online, and Illinois’ Auditor General makes all of his reports available through his website.
In addition to the basics, Illinois in 2011 launched its own data website, which includes information on state contracts, Illinois infrastructure and public health information.
McMurray said Illinois has consistently scored at the top of Sunshine Review’s annual report.
Brooke Anderson, Gov. Pat Quinn’s spokeswoman, said Illinois has opened things up in the past four years.
“We have launched several initiatives to increase transparency, like Sunshine.Illinois.gov which provides important information to citizens ranging from inspection reports to school report cards and grant tracking, Accountability.Illinois.gov to make state expenditures and employee pay data available to the public, and Data.Illinois.gov to provide a searchable clearing house of state agency data that can empower entrepreneurs,” Anderson said in a statement.
“It’s great to see Illinois be recognized for our progress in making governments more accountable,” Anderson said.
Contact Benjamin Yount at [email protected].
By Benjamin Yount