Lansing State leaders ambivalent on online reports

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Hundreds of Michigan's local governments have posted online reports in recent months measuring crime, debt -- even the amount of curbside recycling -- after Gov. Rick Snyder promised state funds for creating websites he says are crucial for government transparency and accountability.

But a new University of Michigan survey obtained in advance by The Associated Press shows that few local leaders think the "dashboards," as Snyder calls them, are doing much to better their communities.

"There is a core of local officials who really believe that these things are going to help. But when we look at all local officials together, there's skepticism on a variety of grounds," said Thomas Ivacko, administrator of the university's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy, which conducted the survey as part of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. The survey was to be released on the center's website later Wednesday.

Local leaders interviewed Tuesday by the Associated Press said the online reports were relatively cheap and easy to craft since most cities, villages and townships already had the required information on hand. Some liked the idea of having lots of data in one place, even if there wasn't a lot of detail. By December, 435 local governments had qualified for additional state dollars after posting dashboards.

How much use they're getting isn't clear. About 100 people a month look at the scorecard put online by the Oakland County city of Novi, with 55,000 residents, while a similar number look each month at the report for the nearby community of Berkley. Berkley City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa said her community's 14,915 local residents already were getting lots of information in reports being produced long before Snyder started asking for the reports, although she welcomed the addition.

"The dashboard is a business type of model. ... It gives people another mechanism to find out exactly how the city is faring," she said, mentioning crime rates and unemployment statistics. "It's a reminder for us that these are the things that we need to be concerned about."

Still, just 10 percent of the leaders from the 1,330 jurisdictions that responded to the survey -- 72 percent of the local governments statewide -- said they thought an online performance scorecard would be very effective at improving accountability and transparency, while 32 percent thought it would be somewhat effective. Thirty-four percent said the scorecards would make no difference, 13 percent thought they'd be less than effective, and 11 percent were unsure of their value.

Asked how well the online reports would improve their local government's overall performance, 8 percent thought the reports would be very effective, 28 percent said somewhat effective, 38 percent said they'd make no difference, 15 percent said they'd be less than effective and 11 percent were unsure of their value.

The survey was conducted from Oct. 3 through Nov. 23 last year, just after many communities posted their online reports in September. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 1.5 percentage points.

Snyder has called for the online scorecards and other changes such as consolidating more services not just for local governments, but for school districts. Both groups saw their state funding cut this year but were told they could make some of it back if they took steps to add online reports and privatize or consolidate services.

"He does think that ... data can help identify problems, make decisions, develop solutions," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said of the governor's push to measure fiscal stability, public safety, economic strength and quality of life. "From his standpoint, it totally ties right into this whole good-government concept."

The survey found the promise of additional money was a powerful incentive, as 90 percent of the 486 eligible local communities jumped at the chance to put online performance reports and a citizen's guide online in return for more funding. Many communities saw their state revenue cut 30 percent or more this year to deal with Michigan's budget deficit, and creating the reports kept them from losing more.

Communities that were ineligible for a share of the state funding pool were less likely to follow the governor's suggestions, however. Only a quarter created online reports, with the proportion falling further among small jurisdictions.

Kalamazoo put a report card online last February even before Snyder tied state funding to it. City finance manager Tom Skrobola said complying has meant about $800,000 more for the southwest Michigan city, which hopes to ultimately get $2.5 million by meeting all of Snyder's "good government" goals. Kalamazoo's website already contained a wealth of data, with the online report card being one more element.

"It's a nice idea," Skrobola said of the online reports, but it "isn't going to dramatically or significantly improve our accountability."

Published: Thu, Jan 26, 2012