Transparency still has ways to go

“Transparency,” when it comes to government, it is certainly the ideal. Taxpayers — the ones who pay government’s bills — deserve nothing less. The good news is that New Mexico governments have made great strides in recent years.

To name just a few improvements, records of legislative floor sessions are now online, as are all floor votes. New Mexico’s new “Sunshine Portal” includes an expanding collection of payroll data, revenue lists and contract amounts. A growing number of cities, counties and school districts across New Mexico now post complete or at least partial payroll information online. Albuquerque Public Schools recently joined the fast-growing list.

Legislation passed last year by the Legislature mandates that public information a government agency has in an electronic format must be available to the public in an electronic format upon request. This law resulted in vast savings of time and costs for citizens and public agencies alike. Before the new law, agencies often would only release public records in paper formats — charging as much as $1 a page — even when the documents were maintained as digital files.

But we still have a ways to go. For starters, in many instances someone still has to request the information. This can be a complicated process. Finding the correct staff person in a given county or with a local city can be challenging, particularly when names of those records custodians aren’t posted online. Also, resistance from local officials ignorant of the law may be another roadblock.

How do we know this? Well, over the past several months, the Rio Grande Foundation has embarked upon the task of collecting and posting payroll information for New Mexico’s largest cities and all 33 counties. We are now working to collect this information for New Mexico’s school districts. With 89 school districts in the state, this will be a significant effort.

City and county information is now available to the public on our website School-district data will be added as we receive it. While we are pleased to perform this public service, the ideal would be for the various government entities to release the information on their websites.

The State itself has a ways to go as well. For starters, rather than posting its votes in hard-to-use “pdf” format, the Legislature could post vote tallies in a format that allows searches by individual legislators.

Of course, when taxpayers’ money is involved, transparency should not end with government. When the government outsources activities to the private sector, these companies lose at least some of their privacy relative to how they use our money. At least to date, the state’s information technology department has not posted information on the millions of dollars the Department of Corrections has spent on contracts with private prisons.

It’s not enough to post just amounts of state contracts. Citizens need to see the actual contract documents. The difference can be significant. It’s the difference between real transparency and opaqueness.

The Rio Grande Foundation and its Watchdog will continue to promote government transparency in New Mexico. We’ve come a long way and can go a lot further in making government open and responsive to its citizens.