Trust produces financial sustainability for local governments, and transparency is a means to obtaining this end. However, financial sustainability is not simply a matter of dollars and cents. A local government has three fundamental responsibilities that are essential to reaching financial sustainability: (1)
Equitable Treatment. Each jurisdiction must provide basic services for maintaining the health, safety, and welfare of the community, regardless of an individual resident's ability to pay.
Fair Pricing. Each jurisdiction must provide basic services at prices that are fair to current and future residents.
Fiduciary Responsibility. Each jurisdiction must ensure that current and future expenditures are justified by benefit-cost calculations and supported by reliable revenue streams. Local governments must think carefully about how to clarify the relationship between the benefits stakeholders receive and the contributions they make to sustaining local government.
This article will describe transparency tactics that support each of these responsibilities of government.
The responsibility of providing services to maintain the health, safety, and welfare of constituents may seem relatively straightforward, but it is complicated by the need to provide services equitably. This is because what is considered equitable can vary, depending on the beholder. For example, under perfect equality, resources would be equally distributed to all stakeholder groups. Another reading of what's equitable might be providing services to stakeholders in proportion to the amount they paid, while yet another might be to provide services in proportion to the individual need of the constituent. Different understandings of what is equitable might be appropriate for different services. For example, users of municipal water or sewer services typically make financial contributions that are proportional to their use of the system. But the users of many social services do not pay taxes or fees that cover their costs--they are subsidized by other payers.
Trust in government is strongly affected by perceptions of equity. If stakeholders perceive that resources are distributed inequitably (e.g., according to family background, personal connections, or political affiliation), then trust in the institutions responsible for distributing those resources will decline. (2) If the public perceives the standard of fairness as reasonable and to not unduly benefiting one group at the expense of another, they will have the impression that public officials care and can be reasoned with and influenced.
A government should be clear about its definition of "equitable" and show how that value is implemented. For example, the City of Portland, Oregon, adopted equity as an overarching goal of its strategic plan (see Exhibit 1). From there, the city council decided to focus on racial equity and equity for people with disabilities. The city adopted three specific equity goals, covering: 1) the representativeness of the city's workforce; 2) outreach and engagement of marginalized groups; and 3) elimination of inequities in service provision. Each city department developed a racial equity plan to show how these goals would be implemented. The plans were adopted by council resolution.
To identify the extent to which services are provided equitably, Portland uses a series of performance measures broken down geographically. Demographic information (e.g., race or disability) is overlaid on maps of the city. For example, a map of pavement quality index shows that the east side of Portland, traditionally an underserved area, has some of the best-quality streets in the city (see Exhibit 2). However, a map of traffic fatalities shows that this same area has a relatively large number of fatalities (see Exhibit 3). So in this case, a more equitable distribution of resources might require more investment in traffic control devices than additional street maintenance. Portland's maps and performance measures are available online at portlandoregon.gov, and some are interactive, allowing the public to pursue their own lines of inquiry about equity.
Portland also has a budget equity assessment tool to help departments think through the ways their base budget and any requested additions (or subtractions) will affect equity. The effectiveness of this tool has improved over the years as departments become more acclimated to it and as the...