State and federal governments have received a lot of attention lately for their efforts to improve government transparency. But cities are also jumping on the bandwagon.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released Transparency in City Spending, which examined financial transparency in 30 of America’s largest cities. “Currently, 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail,” the report says. “Online checkbooks in most cities are searchable, making it easier for residents to follow the money and monitor government spending.”

The organization said that Chicago and New York, which scored the highest, should be models for other cities. Cities that scored poorly included Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, Sacramento, and Cleveland.

But smaller cities have begun transparency efforts of their own — and expanding their scope beyond finances. Oshkosh, Wis., which has a population of about 70,000, now has documents from 12 departments available online.

 IT Manager Anthony Neumann told Government Technology that the city manages to do this on a budget of just $8,900 a year. The amount it spends on its document management system allows it to save significantly more money by reducing staff needed to deal with walk-in queries.

The effort started in 2001, when Oshkosh’s city clerks started migrating their documents into the system. Then the inspections department joined in. Today, documents relating to board commissions, council meetings, agendas, and police accident reports to the clerk’s office are all available through the city’s websites. In addition, most of the city’s municipal and public meetings are broadcast online to reach citizens who live outside the city cable providers’ reach.

Not everything has gone smoothly – the city had to scale back its plans at first when staff balked at entering everything into the computer as well as into paper files – and the IT department has had to act as salespeople and cheerleaders at times to encourage staff. However, as time goes on and the value has become apparent, the success of the program has spread.  “You have to always go small, prove that it’s going to work and it kind of flourishes from there,” Neumann says.


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