Fairfax County and city receive high marks on budget availability

A recent study by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government reported that the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County provide easy online access to their respective budgets. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.)

A recent study by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government reported that the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County provide easy online access to their respective budgets. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.)

In a recent report, both the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County received high marks for providing easy online access to their respective budgets. The study was conducted by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit that advocates for expanded access to government information on the state and local level.

The City of Fairfax was the only locality to receive an “A+”, the highest ranking possible.

“It took only one click to get to the budget, the word “budget” was used, the budget was available in its entirety, was searchable by keyword, provided context and explanation and was available in the first page of search-box results,” read the report. “There were also five years’ worth of past budgets available. Finally, the city’s site included multiple formats for the budget.”

In a release posted on the city’s website, David Hodkins, assistant city manager and finance director, said “the city is immensely pleased with the resultes of this study.”

“We want people to easily find and use the city’s budget on the city’s website,” said Hodkins. “What we write on the website remains true: the city’s budget is the blueprint for financial and policy decisions implemented by the city. It truly is the single most important document we can give the public.” (Emphasis by City of Fairfax.)

Fairfax County received an “A.”

The report said that some might have assumed the largest and wealthiest localities had the best access to their respective budgets, but that was not the case. None of the cities who received an A or A- were among the state’s largest, and only two of the state’s largest counties received high scores. The report, however, concludes that the largest localities “are in some way victims of their own success.”

“Their websites are typically full of information and often feature slick interfaces,” read the report. “They may thus present their residents with loads of information, but that information may be hard to sort through and navigate.”

In a letter by Meghan Rhyne, executive director of the organization, she explains how VCOG rated each locality.

“We examined whether the budget was available in one comparative document, in sections or both,” read the letter. “We looked at formats and whether it was searchable by keyword. We looked at whether the budget could be found on a home-page search box or a site map.”

Apart from measuring budget availability, the report also examined whether the budget documents were easy to understand or if past budgets were also accesible.

“We wondered if past budgets were available and how many,” read the report. “We searched for context, explanations and summaries. And we took note of helpful information along the way: explanations of the budget process, a budget calendar, citizen input, offers of free budget CDs.”

Across the commonwealth, the average number of clicks it took to reach the budget was three, including both counties and cities. The websites for fifteen localities did not contain any budget information at all.

The report says that without the budget,”there’s nothing else,” and that focusing on budget availability is the “most literal way that government can be held accountable.”

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