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One of the fundamental aspects of a functioning democracy is the sense of trust that must exist between those who govern and those who are governed. Elected leaders must offer the public a clear sense that they are not only doing right by them, but that they are serving as stewards of democracy, spending funds and resources in a way that is in keeping with the wishes of the voters. To that end, many states have launched websites that provide insight into their financial functions.
One of the fundamental aspects of a functioning website, however, is ease of use. For several years, Massachusetts has worked toward creating a greater sense of transparency into the innerworkings of state government, with state comptroller Thomas Shack providing a web page dedicated to transparency. Known as the Commonwealth’s Financial Records Transparency Platform, the site is dedicated to such insight. Unfortunately, a recent report by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group indicates that the site has slipped from its A- to A rating for the past five years to a B-.
To be fair, the commonwealth’s site has seen substantial upgrades since earning a failing grade from MASSPIRG in 2010. In fact, Shack noted that the state has recently invested in significant upgrades to the website, helping to ensure that it is compatible with a full range of browsers, operating systems, and mobile platforms, and he challenged the notion that the site has somehow taken a step backward. As proof, he cited a report from the Center for Data Innovation, which last year listed Massachusetts as having the highest level of technical innovation of any state website in the country.
MASSPIRG’s spokeswoman noted that the reason for the slippage in the state’s rating had less to do with the content (although she did note that the state could do better in terms of sharing spending information about quasi-public agencies) and more to do with the ability of ordinary individuals to navigate the site. This year, the MASSPIRG researchers asked ordinary people to try to find answers to a list of specific questions. The idea was to go beyond merely measuring the presence of information and test just how easily available such information was. The MASSPIRG spokeswoman explained it as something akin to the difference between looking at a car in a showroom and taking it out for a test drive.
The use of focus groups is a new approach for MASSPIRG’s researchers, who reported that overall, ratings for state websites from across the United States dropped as a result of the new criteria. In the end, only eight states managed to garner an A or A- rating.
The comments of the focus groups suggest that Massachusetts, along with many other states, is not keeping pace with the evolving expectations of visitors, many of whom are likely accustomed to commercial sites, which must change and offer upgrades on a regular basis, developing ever-easier ways for viewers to access content.
Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect state websites to evolve at a similar pace. After all, most states likely do not have the budget or inclination to reinvent their sites on a regular basis. But the truth is that in the land of politics, the voters are the consumers, and all the information in the world is only as valuable as it is accessible.
Rather than get defensive about the results, Shack and his team should instead take the laudable energies and effort that they have already committed to the state’s transparency efforts and examine what they can do to improve. Perhaps they could start by visiting the eight state sites that took the top spots this year and seeing what they offer.
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