March 31, 2010
Cook County has recently taken efforts to improve its transparency and accountability to the public through its Open County Initiative website. The County developed the initiative as a response to recommendations by the Sunshine Review, a non-profit organization that advocates for better state and local government transparency. The Sunshine Review evaluated the content of Cook County’s website and identified areas for improvement. The County subsequently created the Open County Initiative section of its website that lists the Sunshine Review’s general recommendations for county government websites, the County’s response to the recommendations and links to content on the County’s website that provides the specific information addressed in the recommendations.
The Open County Initiative section of the website organizes content into 5 pages. The “Open County Initiative” page summarizes the general goals of the initiative and gives information about the Sunshine Review’s evaluation of the County’s website. There are 3 other pages, which are entitled “Budget and Finance,” “Government” and “Property and Taxes” that organize content related to those areas. The fifth page is the County’s new online Check Register, which contains information for County checks written against contracts from December 2009 onward. The site lets users search for checks by payee name, check number, purchase order (PO) number and business unit code. Search results yield information for the four keywords, the amount paid to the payee and a description of the goods or services provided by the payee.
The Open County Initiative website does not add new or improved content to the County website, other than the Check Register. However, the site does organize content so that it is more accessible to the public. The site also signals to the public that the County is aware of potential areas of improvement for its website.
The Civic Federation commends the County for creating the Open County Initiative website while recognizing that the website can still be improved. The Open County Initiative site does not address the Sunshine Review’s recommendation to include clear information about how to file a public record, or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), request. The County website should include clear information for members of the public interested in filing FOIA requests, including a contact at the County who processes these requests and an explanation of how to file such a request. DuPage County has a webpage on its website that accomplishes this function. It explains the purpose of FOIA, how to file a FOIA request and procedures for appealing the denial of a FOIA request. The webpage also contains the forms needed to process the request and links to further FOIA information on the Illinois Attorney General’s website.
Additionally, the site would be improved by modifying the Check Register to allow users to search by a description of the services provided by the payee. Allowing users to search by service description would allow users to sort through the data with greater ease. DuPage County’s Transparency in Government webpage accomplishes a similar function by allowing users to search by department and then by budget category. The budget category search function lets users find expenditures by specific services, commodities or other types of expenditures.
For the Civic Federation’s previous post about the Cook County Check Register please see this blog post.