An unhelpful guide to Washington County

The Salem Leader
Generation Why – Column
Justin Harter
December  2011

An unhelpful guide to Washington County

I think I speak for everyone when I say, “Transparent government is good.” The ability for a unit of government to act as open as possible is healthy and necessary for a democratic society.

At the state level, here in Indiana, we do pretty well. You can watch Supreme Court arguments online, you can read every appellate court’s opinion, research school data and test scores, budget information, see census information, meeting information, how to setup a business, tax information and a lot more. Indiana has a really informative site compared to a lot of others. It’s also completely self-funding, meaning IN.gov runs entirely on the revenue it brings in from online license sales.

And then there’s local government. This is where most every county in Indiana falls flat. I’m a professional website designer, and I’ve been doing this with great success for many years now. I’ve organized web development conferences, met many of the leading developers in the country, I teach it and I do it daily. I say this with some level of authority.

So I’ve paid some attention to www.washingtoncounty.in.gov, the official website for the county.

First, from a transparency standpoint, they do a couple of things well. Meeting times are posted clearly and the officials for each department are listed respectively. You can easily find out the names of who runs what.

You can also view county court case records, thanks to a program funded by the Indiana Supreme Court. You can also do a land records search.

However, when you think about some other things you’d really want to know about, you can’t find it. The county’s site has very little information on tax information — just basic statutory information. The county’s budget isn’t published anywhere online, either. It’s completely void of tax rates and how the money is allocated.

Speaking of budgets, county and independent audits, contracts, and projects with open bids are not available online, either. If the county had an open bid for a project, unless you show up to every meeting, you have no way of knowing what’s going on. Plus, wouldn’t it be great to know how much a contractor got paid to pave a stretch of road?

There isn’t much information about the county commissioners or the county council online. You can see when they’re meeting and the address and phone numbers of the office holders, but it stops there. If you wanted to know what they do, where they’re from, how long they’ve been in office, other positions they hold or an electronic means of contacting them, you’re out of luck.

There’s little information on building permits and zoning. If you wanted to establish a business and knew nothing of Washington County, the county’s website directs businesses to the Chamber of Commerce site (which is very similar to the county’s in style). The Chamber’s website doesn’t have this information either. If you’re a factory owner and you wanted to relocate, zoning and tax rate information is probably at the top of the list of things you’d want to know, and it’s not there.

The county’s website doesn’t disclose if it belongs to any taxpayer-funded lobbying organizations. The county lobbying isn’t necessarily bad — this would cover regional compacts (like economic development groups) or subtle things like hosting a luncheon for state or federal legislators. Perhaps the county doesn’t do any of that, but we have no easy way of knowing without a disclosure.

Right now, someone is saying, “Well, Justin, if you want to know all that you can come into the courthouse and file a public records request.” I’d do that, except the county’s website doesn’t have information on how to make such a request. And I think I speak for everyone when I suggest that in 2011, people shouldn’t have to drive to a special building to find out information on their publicly funded governing bodies. When I hear that, I hear, “Making this difficult is a feature, not a bug.”

And the most egregious issue: the site flat doesn’t work on millions of devices. If you use a smartphone, tablet or new Macintosh computer, the site fails to load because of an archaic chunk of code on the site’s homepage.

Everything I’ve mentioned here doesn’t cost money — the county doesn’t need to spend thousands of dollars to invest in anything it hasn’t already. All it takes is the time of a few employees to compile the information in an easy to read, easy to access format and publish it. For most of this stuff, it’s just a matter of writing some additional content.

With that in mind, there’s no reason why Washington County can’t capitalize on the failings of every other county and leapfrog the competition on the most public-facing and highly visible piece of marketing the county has already invested in.

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