This week, we’re celebrating Sunshine Week—a national initiative to bring awareness to the importance of public information access—by discussing new ways to increase government transparency. Earlier this week, we shared how social media can be an effective channel for communicating government decisions. Today, we’re going to focus on online public document portals, and how to best implement them.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important piece of legislation and the cornerstone for government transparency—it provides ordinary citizens the right to access information from the government. While critical and cherished, the process of disseminating the information related to FOIA can be a headache for government organizations and a less-than-ideal experience for the information requestor.
Many government organizations are meeting this challenge by providing online document repositories. These portals allow the public to use a self-service model for information requests, which is less time-intensive for government employees and better suits the on-demand needs of the public.
Are you thinking about implementing a public information portal in your organization? Here are some tips and best practices for making the most of your portal:
- Customize the look and feel of the portal. Since you want your public portal to be a trusted source of information, make it look and feel like an extension of your existing website. Mis-matched portals may feel like they don’t belong to the government organization, and thus cause visitors to believe that the information is coming from another source. Use your existing color scheme and place your organization’s logo on the portal to assure visitors of its validity.
- Make it easy to find commonly requested information.. Think about the various types of documents that are commonly requested by the public, then make them as simple as possible to find on your online public portal. For example, The City of Newport Beach has categorized different document types on the landing page of their public portal, making it easier for end-users to run the search without using advanced search criteria. So, instead of manually filling out the search criteria for document types such as “council minutes,” “financial documents,” or “building permits,” Newport Beach has already tied the custom search criteria to the link on the public portal landing page, and the user simply needs to click the document type link to run the common search.
- Be proactive—build portals around timely trends. Many government organizations see flurry of public records requests around specific events. For example, citizens in the City of Fontana have taken a particular interest in the proposed construction of two Walmarts within the city. Expecting many requests for information related to these projects, the City of Fontana created a “Walmart Watch” portal to house all relevant documents. This has saved city employees time and enabled the public to gather all of the information that they desire.
While providing documents online is a great service, the next evolution of this initiative involves engaging the public with dynamic Q&A forums around the documents featured in the public portal. This way, citizens can ask why a certain decision was made, or build communities around common interests in government projects. You can learn more about this online engagement platform by reading a recent report from the Center for Digital Government, A Community for Collaboration and Innovation.