Public happier when the sun shines

Public engagement only works when the public has real information.

That’s an essential point in the philosophy of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities project, aimed at helping 100 medium-sized cities improve how they gather, analyze, use and share data.

Begun earlier this year, the initiative named the first round of cities chosen to participate in late summer and, just last week announced another 13, including Lexington.

The earliest results residents can expect from this recognition should come in the spring when the city expects to put both payroll and purchasing information online. Great.

When governments spend tax dollars — whether on salaries, asphalt, playground equipment or stormwater systems — those taxpayers have a right to know how and where it’s spent. That transparency can improve public confidence in government by enhancing both accountability and efficiency.

What Works Cities doesn’t give money to the chosen communities but instead underwrites support from several organizations that help cities refine how they collect, share and use information to improve decision making and public engagement, and to track outcomes.

Lexington has already begun down this path. Citizens can sign up to receive updates and alerts on building permits, code enforcement cases and foreclosures in their neighborhoods, for example, or to get information about recent arrests in their area. Map It allows you to enter an address and find out how it’s zoned, the closest fire station, hospital, library and post office, who represents the area in both state and local offices.

What Works Cities aims to help move all this information beyond a cool diversion for nerds. Instead, the program’s goal is to help cities learn how to analyze all that data to guide how best to spend public money and effort, and then provide feedback on what’s working and what isn’t.

Lexington’s city leaders deserve congratulation for both applying to participate in the program and being chosen to participate.

The city is, unfortunately, something of an outlier among major public institutions in sharing information with those who pay the bills.

The deeply troubled state pension programs continue to fight demands to provide more information about both costs and benefits, while the University of Kentucky recently announced it will challenge an order to open the books on its Kentucky Medical Services Foundation.

It is very hard to muster support from a public that’s kept in the dark.