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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 mkittle@wisconsinreporter.com

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.