Twenty-First Century Good Governance at the Local Level

Access to information has become a basic government service, making democracy work. Citizens need the ability to track what government does, and policymakers must produce and have access to historical records.

While “good governance” is a broad and subjective term, reviewing the outcomes of public policy decisions can tell us whether it exists or not. At the local government level, good governance is reflected in increased civic engagement and responsiveness to the community’s requirements. One small community in the southwest corner of Iowa, Hamburg, provides a great illustration of an area of good governance overlooked and easily provided by local officials.

This little city has had a tumultuous history. Hamburg made headlines in recent years for its struggle with the 2011 and 2019 Missouri River floods. These natural disasters led to a population decline of 25% over the course of a decade, but the remaining citizens are engaged and determined to keep their city alive. In the three short years since a devastating flood that damaged 76 homes and several downtown businesses, the community has welcomed a new motel, a meat locker plant, and a hairdresser.

Nonetheless, residents’ civic activities have put a spotlight on an important gap in the city’s basic services: a functional website. One fundamental principle of good governance is openness and transparency. Many state agencies have moved toward increased online transparency, and the major cities all have websites, but Iowa government at all levels still has a long way to go. According to the Iowa League of Cities, state law does not mandate municipal websites, and many smaller cities cite a lack of technical expertise and budget authority as reasons for falling behind in the information era.

Consequently, many counties, cities, school districts, and townships provide little, if any, information concerning the functions and costs of government online. Elected officials and administrators may believe they are transparent, but taxpayers’ reasonable expectations are much higher in the 2020s than they were just a couple decades ago. For a Twenty-First Century democracy to work, citizens need reliable access to frequently updated information about what government is doing, and policymakers who come and go over time must have easy access to historical records.

When it comes to Hamburg, a shell of a website exists for the city, but no information or links are available. The most extensive source of online information is a social media Facebook page with no posts since 2019. City Council agendas and notices are taped to the inside of the door to a downtown building. Enterprising residents attend the meetings and post a live video feed online through another Facebook group to share information, but this relies on the public spirit of volunteers and makes public information subject to the whims of a private company.

Given this lack of access, a recent audit from the State of Iowa finding misuses of taxpayer funds in Hamburg was perhaps not surprising. Among the complaints were conflicts of interest surrounding city contracts, “guessing” how much to bill for city water, improper use of debt funds, a lack of paper trail tracing the destination of tax revenue, “gifts” to private non-profit corporations, and questionable city disbursements.

Fortunately, Hamburg does not face the civic disengagement that plagues most small communities in Iowa. Residents pack themselves into a tiny room, and those who can’t fit stand outside during city council meetings. The crowd takes up most of the time asking for basic information and explanations related to city water, city codes, ordinances, pet licensing info, and other topics of ordinary concern.

The audit made clear that this form of information distribution is not sufficient. Residents of Hamburg need a place to review city documents at their own pace to keep city officials in check and ensure they are spending tax dollars appropriately.

One resident posted online saying, “If there was a source for us to go for official city news, there would be more time for employees to work. On November 6, I was on the phone with Amanda for 29 minutes about our water bill. Everything she told me is info the whole city needs. Publish that info somewhere — save valuable time for employees who are too busy.”

Statewide, Iowa has made strides implementing transparency, and a recent property tax law will force local governments to send budget and property tax information directly to taxpayers. Without comprehensive transparency standards, however, citizens and taxpayers are often left in the dark about the details of government activities and spending.

With enough public attention and the efforts of one or two people in city government, Hamburg might get itself a passable website, but that is not enough. Transparency is not a one-time action, but a philosophy outlasting individual officials, and constant improvement allows citizens and elected officials to hold government in check. The State of Iowa should require municipalities to provide information in a clear, complete, and easy-to-understand way that prompts accountability and openness.

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