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Online Transparency Not Advanced Enough, Say TN Open Gov’t Advocates

The State of Tennessee is lately booting up new technologies designed in theory to ease the public’s often wearisome interactions with government bureaucracies.

But genuine progress toward making government more transparent to taxpayers is actually pretty slow going, according to groups that promote easy access to public information.

The governor announced moves to give taxpayers access to state construction and traffic tie-up data on their smartphones this fall and just finished a massive overhaul of the state’s website. But various open government groups give Tennessee’s website grades ranging from a “B” overall, to a “C+” for transparency of the state budget process to a “D-” for online access to government spending data.

“The searchability still leaves a lot to be desired,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a former newsman with The Associated Press. Flanagan said it’s difficult for the average citizen to find what they’re looking for. “Unless they know the quirks for looking up legislation and bills, they can get frustrated very easily.”

At the Tennessee Digital Government Summit in Nashville Tuesday, the governor boasted about having assembled a team of “talented, experienced professionals in the state, looking at ways to increase effectiveness in the IT process.”

Meanwhile, the state is evaluating changes to the way driver service centers manage information, creating a portal to better direct people seeking occupational licenses and improving the state website’s search engine, the governor said.

“If you’re providing a product, whether you’re a dry cleaner, a restaurant, a government, a hospital, whatever, it’s all about making it simpler for the customer. And that’s what we’re trying to do in so many of our processes,” said Haslam.

Earlier this year, the governor’s office said it was working on updating the content and functionality of the state’s Open Government website. But so far, the administration hasn’t set a timeline for its rollout, said spokesman Dave Smith.

He says the governor’s office is also working on standardizing how the state responds to requests for open records, an issue Haslam has said can be abused by reporters or political operatives going on “fishing expeditions” for stacks of public records. Those new rules are due out this summer, Smith said.

Open government advocates say they’d like the state to ensure government makes it easy for citizens to review government records and determine how decisions are made.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank. Owen said the Center was charged over $1,000 by the state to fill an open records request. “If it’s a challenge for us, you can forget about average citizens being able to obtain public records. That really needs to change.”

These are documents the public needs to be able to see to examine how the proverbial sausage is being made, said Flanagan, adding that “most people don’t want to get that close. Most people just want to sit down and eat the sausage.”

“That’s all part of what those of us who have a keen interest in open government are looking for. How much can you as a citizen, a taxpayer, a voter, see?” he said.