March 19 marked the 25th anniversary of the birth of the Internet — the dawn of today’s information-at-our-fingertips age.
It was 1989 when Sir Tim Berners-Lee pitched and then developed his idea for a computer-to-computer web of information that could be shared worldwide. It originally was intended as a tool for universities and researchers to easily share ideas and data. He launched the first website in December 1990, and the rest is history.
Now, people with computers, tablets and smartphones instantly can access just about any kind of information imaginable. Software and app designers continue to produce technology that makes it relatively easy for anyone to create a website and upload information.
A January poll by the Pew Research Internet Project showed seven out of eight U.S. adults are on the Internet today, compared to 14 percent in 1995. About 90 percent of Americans have cellphones, with nearly 60 percent owning smartphones. More than two-thirds of Internet users use smartphones or tablets to access the web.
Despite the public’s demand for instant, easy-to-find information, data and documents through the click of a mouse or the tap of a smartphone screen, governmental bodies continue to drag their feet about putting public information online.
And, unfortunately, the more local the government is to you, the less likely you’ll find it has a presence on the Web — and if it does, you won’t necessarily find a lot of detailed information, such as board minutes, budgets, tax rates, employee rosters and contracts.
The irony is that small local governments frequently complain they have neither the time nor the resources to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests from the public, yet if they simply made better use of the Internet and posted the most frequently requested documents, a good deal of the FOIA burden could be lifted.
Local townships throughout Illinois for the most part are passing up that opportunity. Of the townships in Sangamon and surrounding counties, most are not online.
Websites for two of the largest townships, Capital and Springfield, are winners. Capital’s site has a “transparency page” link at the top of the main page, where visitors can access budgets, financial statements, expenditures, check registers, treasurer reports, salary and benefit reports, contracts, tax histories and fees, and more. FOIA instructions are listed.
Meeting agendas are posted, as are officials’ and trustees’ names. Meeting minutes and direct contact information for trustees appeared to be lacking. Springfield Township posts meeting agendas, minutes and town and road expenses.
Listed are names and contact information for officials and trustees, meeting dates and programs, and the name of the FOIA officer.
However, a review of websites for smaller townships shows the information and public documents they post typically are sparse or incomplete. Meeting minutes, tax and budget documents and FOIA contact information often are absent.
This week is Sunshine Week, a yearly effort by newspapers and other civic-minded organizations to remind citizens and public officials of the importance of open government and freedom of information.
We encourage all units of government to examine their websites this week and consider how they might improve the scope of the information, data and documents posted online for taxpayers and residents to review and monitor.
It’s especially important that smaller units of government — the townships, fire protection districts, library boards, water districts, small towns and villages, for example — make the leap to online as a way to ease the burden that comes with responding to paper freedom of information requests. Referring someone to the Web for information is easier and less costly than copying dozens or hundreds of pages of documents and mailing them out.
Twenty-five years after one man’s blueprint for the Internet gave way to more than 500 million active websites, there really are no excuses for government not to embrace the digital age.
Illinois needs more examples of good, responsive, open government that is mindful of not only the public’s right to know how and by whom its tax money is being spent, but also of how people expect to access and interact with information in 2014.
— GateHouse Media Illinois