An opinion piece by Larry Stendebach

Last week I set out with a United for Missouri camera crew to hear what people in Saint Louis thought about government transparency (see the video below). The response we got was overwhelmingly in favor of more transparency at all levels of government. Citizens commented on the need for oversight and the ability for “we the people” to hold our elected officials accountable for how they spend our tax dollars. But, as with any question we got a few people who declined to answer and one person who made an outrageous claim about the movement for government transparency. This person claimed that the movement to open governments’ books online was “elitist” and that the movement was only relevant to citizens who own a computer. I want to spend this blog post looking at this argument against transparency and show that government transparency online helps all citizens regardless of income.

Government transparency online provides the most benefit to the lower class. Completely the opposite of elitism, transparency in government data allows citizens to do their own research and see where the government is spending their money. In the status quo, this sort of financial research can be done, but more often than not such research requires a sunshine request to be filed and procedures to be followed. At that point the organization can fax or mail the information to you. This often requires  the researcher to pay for “retrieval fees” (which can include the hourly wage of a worker who will collect the data for you) and/or postage to mail the documents.

The expenses and time needed to get the data you are looking for is enough to turn away the most experienced reporter, let alone an average citizen. The status quo could be considered elitist because the only people who typically make sunshine requests are those who have the time, money and procedural knowledge to submit an appropriate sunshine request. Openness and online transparency allow citizens at all income levels to easily see where and how their tax money is being spent, without the need for red-tape or procedural know-how. Government transparency levels the playing field on government oversight; where once only those in-the-loop could review data, now everyone who has access to the Internet can.

The vast majority of Americans have access to the Internet. The 2009 internet usage and population report from Nielsen found that nearly 75% of American households have Internet access and that number has been constantly on the rise. Moreover, every major population area has libraries or Internet cafes that offer free internet access to citizens. In St. Louis alone, a Google search revealed the following libraries:

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Online government transparency is good for everyone —rich, poor and in between. With more eyeballs looking over every expenditure, we are certain to have more oversight, less corruption, and a more informed citizenry. This will ensure that funds are being spent in the community where they will do the most good, and where the elected officials and the citizens both agree.