The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility. In New Jersey, both the Legislature and the courts have declared that transparency is critical to citizens’ oversight of government. According to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the public policy of this state strongly supports transparency.
Municipalities across the country have been moving toward making their checkbooks easily accessible to the public by posting government spending information through on-line transparency portals. Yet, none of New Jersey’s 15 most populous municipalities – which are home to 20 percent of the state’s population and spend more than $3 billion in public funds every year – has an online open checkbook that meets modern standards of government transparency.
New Jersey residents deserve better. Major New Jersey cities, with help and leadership from the state of New Jersey, should make more information about government spending readily available to their residents online in a manner that is easy to download, understand, compile and analyze.
New Jersey’s 15 largest municipalities – Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, Edison, Woodbridge, Lakewood, Toms River, Hamilton, Clifton, Trenton, Camden, Brick, Cherry Hill, and Passaic – lag significantly behind the national trend toward government open checkbooks.
Following our earlier studies of government spending in the states and in the country’s largest cities, this report evaluates the progress of New Jersey’s largest cities toward “Transparency 2.0” – a standard of all-encompassing, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.
Twelve scoring criteria were used to measure the breadth of information each city provides online and the information’s searchability. Based on these findings, we assigned each city a number grade from zero to 100 and a corresponding letter grade from “A” to “F.” (See Table ES-1 for the list of cities and grades. See Methodology for details of the grading and scoring process.)
Jersey City ranked first among the state’s 10 most populous cities for online budget transparency, followed by Trenton and Edison. None of the state’s biggest municipalities, however, received a passing grade when evaluated according to modern standards of transparency.
This should include providing at least the level of transparency given to state government spending in New Jersey and would ideally include adoption of all of the best practices of “Transparency 2.0.”
The governments of New Jersey’s largest municipalities should:
The New Jersey state government also has an important role to play in promoting municipal transparency. New Jersey state officials should provide technical assistance to municipalities in their transparency efforts, and should invite municipalities and other government agencies to add their financial data to the state’s existing Open Data Center, at data.nj.gov. State officials should also implement the “Bulletin NJ” website required by Assembly Bill 3128 passed in 2011, which would serve as a state repository of local bidding and contract information.Download factsheet