Since its creation in 1957, Illinois’ Open Meetings Act has mandated state government agencies hold meeting that are open to the public. A new report from the nonprofit journalism lab City Bureau reveals that many agencies are falling short. In fact, dozens of government bodies, more than 30%, received a failing grade from City Bureau for transparency and public access.
Below, a Q&A with City Bureau reporter Sarah Conway.
How did you come up with grades for the government agencies?
We tried to holistically look at what it means for a government agency to be fully transparent. We used 11 criteria. Six are related to Illinois’ Open Meetings Act, the rest were good governance categories. Good governance might involve making the meeting more accessible to the public through livestreaming or making an audio recording of the meeting easily accessible.
City Bureau has an innovative program called the Documenters. Tell us about the program and the role these people played in compiling data for this report.
Documenters are people paid to attend meetings to make sure government information is accessible. This project couldn’t have been done without the Documenters. Our Open Gov Report Card comes from a year of data collection, compiled from hundreds of Documenters going to public meetings. For example, it might say on the website that there’s time for public comment, but then you get to the meeting and find out you needed to pre-register on-line by the previous day in order to comment. That is a violation of Illinois’ Open Meetings Act and something we might not have been aware of without the Documenters.
Less than 3% of the 148 Chicago and Cook County government agencies you evaluated received an ‘A.’ Do any stand out as role models for transparency?
The Chicago Board of Elections was the only one that got a perfect score. They take the Open Meetings Act very seriously and see it as their duty to be transparent. They really go above and beyond and see it as a necessary part of implementing a fair election.
Who are the worst scoring government bodies?
There are five agencies with a zero score:
1. Chicago Affirmative Action Advisory Board
2. Chicago Emergency Telephone System Fund
3. Cook County Veterans Assistance Commission
4. Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity
5. Chicago Special Service Area #47 47th Street & Cottage Grove
What is the overall importance of nonprofit journalism?
What distinguishes nonprofit journalism from traditional ad-based (journalism) is that a lot of nonprofit coverage focuses on listening to the community, requiring reporters spend a lot of time in that community. City Bureau prides itself on being a newsroom for the people. And I’d say Chicago’s leading the nation when it comes to civic journalism … everything from Block Club Chicago to City Bureau.
The Open Government Report Card is part of a concerted effort by City Bureau to make the public aware of what government agencies are supposed to be doing. Citizens can use this as a tool to be empowered. This is both a way for the public to understand what the Open Meetings Act is and what their rights are if they want to become informed about what their local government is doing. I think we often forget that these meetings are where a lot of decisions about our lives are being made. We want as many people as possible to participate in these meetings.
On Thursday, Dec. 5, City Bureau hosts the event Public Newsroom 127: How Open Is Your Government? For information, visit the organization’s Facebook page.