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Wisconsin slips in government transparency rating

By   /   March 14, 2013  /   No Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — You won’t find uncomfortable speeches, self-important actors or the irreverent comedic stylings of Seth MacFarlane involved in these awards.

But the Sunny Awards recognize something arguably more important to the average citizen than Best Documentary Short, Costume Design or even Best Picture.

The Sunnys, brought to you by Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based, pro-transparency organization, celebrates the best — most open and transparent — state and local government websites in the United States.

This week, in conjunction with Sunshine Week and the national spotlight on public information access, Sunshine Review handed out Sunny Awards to 41 government websites, earning the organization’s “A” transparency grade. The award winners represent a fraction of the approximately 5,000 local and state websites reviewed nationwide.

Wisconsin ranks above average in government website transparency, according to Sunshine Review

Wisconsin ranks above average in government website transparency, according to Sunshine Review

Among the states, Wisconsin overall received a “B-,” a full grade lower than the “A-“the Badger State earned in 2012 and the perfect “A” grade in 2011.

Wisconsin wasn’t alone in its fall from grace; none of last year’s Sunny Award winners maintained their perfect status, according to Kristin McMurray, managing editor of Sunshine Review. Of the states graded so far this year, those that finished at the top of their class in 2012, most have received average grades.

“We raised the bar,” McMurray said of the group’s tougher grading scale

Wisconsin’s state website, Wisconsin.gov , goes beyond the basics of the rating standards, providing contact information for administrative and elected officials, posting the voting records of lawmakers in a searchable format, and making party affiliations public, according to Sunshine Review’s rating.

Where Wisconsin excels, is in the category of Ethics, according to the rating group. Ethics information is available on the site, as are instructions for filing complaints.

Wisconsin falters in overall usability, Sunshine Review says.

“Website is confusing, big items like ‘budget’ are not readily accessible,” Sunshine Review notes.

Local governments have not fared as well in the transparency report card. Wisconsin’s cities and school districts each have received a “C,” while counties took home a D on their collective report card.

Milwaukee may take a bow. Sunshine Review gives Milwaukee Public Schools website an A+ for transparency, and the city gets an A-.

Other government watchdogs say Wisconsin, once a paragon of transparency, has fallen from its pedestal.

““There used to be a culture in Wisconsin that governed agency behavior; it established a fact of life that the public had the right to see government records and those records would be made available promptly. Over the past decade, I have seen more foot-dragging, more delays, and it has been more difficult to get open records filled,” Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told Wisconsin Reporter last month.

McCabe and others are fighting a bill that would charge public information requesters the cost of redacting private information from government documents.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, commonly known as PIRG, gave Wisconsin’s state website a D- in providing online access to government spending data.

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]


M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.