Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

How Much Are Citizen Perceptions of Fiscal Accountability Influenced by Government Transparency, Information Access, and Participation Opportunities?

Academic journal article Public Finance and Management

How Much Are Citizen Perceptions of Fiscal Accountability Influenced by Government Transparency, Information Access, and Participation Opportunities?

Article excerpt

1.INTRODUCTION

A democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency. President Obama, 1/21/2009.

[I]ncreasing transparency is an important step toward restoring the trust that many have lost in government. Richard Eckstrom, South Carolina Comptroller, 2008 (cited in Association of Government Accountants, 2011).

There is no shortage of anecdotal and empirical evidence pointing to a decline of citizen trust in government in the U.S. Vigoda-Gadot (2013) claims that trust in government is important for healthy democracies. He identifies three essential ingredients for building healthy democracies:

First, public institutions must provide services through professional and responsive administration. Second, citizens must be satisfied with government (and its administrators) and public service provision. Third, service provision and satisfaction must be in line with peoples' political attitudes, especially towards trust in the government (p. 14).

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center (2014), tax and budget issues are often the focal points for citizen dissatisfaction with government. As they point out:

Citizens frequently express the feeling that they have little influence over how their money is spent.There is confusion over different levels of government and how the tax dollar is split. There is a lack of understanding about the connection between the tax dollars government collects and the services that government provides. Budget documents are often lengthy and obtuse. More focused and understandable messages about budget decisions and tax dollar spending are urgently needed (para. 1).

We argue that the lack of transparency and access to information presented in a format understandable to the general public and useful for judging the fiscal accountability of cities are contributors to dissatisfaction with government. In addition, the few participation opportunities and invitations by government officials to citizens to provide input in budget processes are often limited; when available, the participation processes are often passive with input being provided from a small, non-representative group of residents and with no direct feedback from the city officials who sought the input.

Recently Jun, Wang, and Wang concluded that "accessing information through government Web sites improves citizens' satisfaction with government transparency" (2014, p. 125). In research on transparency, the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) finds that financial "information is not being read or used by the citizens and/or taxpayers, because it is too difficult to assimilate and understand in context" (2011, p. 4). Professional associations, like the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) and the AGA, have therefore encouraged governments to prepare popular financial reports and budget-in-brief documents as a means to increase transparency, information access, and utilization. These reports can also improve perceptions of fiscal accountability since they document what fiscal decisions were approved and how public resources were spent. In many reports, the results achieved are provided, allowing an additional means for citizens to assess local government's accountability.

In addition to these citizen-friendly reporting documents, an increasing variety of open budget processes, such as participation mechanisms accessible on the internet, have been recommended by professional organizations (such as the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) and the Participatory Budgeting Project) as an effective way to incorporate public participation into decision making and to enhance satisfaction with and trust in government. Echoing these professional organizations, Van Ryzin and Lavena (2013) found that citizens find basic performance information credible even when a local government is reporting on itself. If this is the case, then increased transparency, information accessibility and participation opportunities should enhance citizen's perceptions of local government accountability. …

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