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Sunday, August 19, 2018

By Jenni Bergal, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel was mortified when a consumer watchdog group last year gave his state a D-minus for transparency in providing online access to information on government spending.

So he decided to do something about it.

In December, Mandel’s office launched a user-friendly, cutting-edge financial transparency website that this year earned Ohio the only A-plus in a national review of state websites that tell the public how state government spends taxpayer money.

Every state now runs some kind of public accountability — or “checkbook” — site. The goal is to increase transparency and accountability. But while many states have been ramping up their efforts to make their sites accessible and comprehensive, some still have a long way to go. Eighteen states were graded between C and F in an annual evaluation of the sites this year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

State checkbook websites vary considerably. Some are easy to use and provide lots of information with one click, making it easy for users to unearth individual payments to a person or company. Others are difficult to navigate or don’t contain as much information.

“There is a lot of variation. If you were to compare Ohio with Alaska or Idaho, you’d see huge differences in how user-friendly it is,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at U.S. PIRG, which published this year’s ratings in March.

Every year, states spend hundreds of billions of dollars contracting with private vendors and nonprofits, handing out subsidies, such as tax credits, to companies to spur development and making other expenditures. States created the checkbook websites to open up information about that spending to the public. The sites tell taxpayers who is getting the money, and what for.

“It’s extremely important because you have a new set of eyes on this information, not just those of someone in government,” said LaVita Tuff, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes open government.

State financial officials say that checkbook websites can help save money by identifying inefficiencies and reducing the amount of time spent by staff filling information requests. Posting contract information on the websites can result in more competitive bidding and lower bids. For example, interested vendors might see that they could win a contract by offering a lower price, and state agencies might see that they could consolidate contracts to get a better deal.

Massachusetts saved $3 million by eliminating paper, postage and printing expenses related to information requests by state agencies and paperwork from vendors, according to U.S. PIRG. Texas was able to renegotiate its copier machine lease and save $33 million over three years. And in South Dakota, a reporter used the website to launch an investigation into subsidies that led to the state saving about $19 million by eliminating redundancies.

“I think these websites are very important,” said Kinney Poynter, executive director of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers. “More transparency provides better information for all of those involved, whether they be citizens, contractors or legislative bodies.”

The U.S. PIRG report, in its sixth year, evaluates and grades states on their online transparency initiatives and how well they provide access to spending data. It examines whether checkbook sites offer comprehensive, one-stop, one-click access to users and make large sets of data easy to download.

A growing number of states are doing a better job, the report found. Fourteen got an A this year, up from eight last year. Louisiana and Illinois were among those that got bumped up.

Other states that made strides included Colorado, which got a B-plus after it re-launched its portal, now easier to use, and Kansas, which vaulted from a D-minus to a B by overhauling its site to make information more accessible and easier to download.

Connecticut, which got an A for the first time this year, recently launched OpenCheckbook, an easy to use, comprehensive site that allows users to search real-time information about payments to vendors, nonprofits and others.

“You not only have direct access to micro and macro information about the operation of state government, but you can search it, compare it, trend it and download big data sets,” said State Comptroller Kevin Lembo, a Democrat. “I’d like to think that we’re pushing the envelope in this area.”

Lembo said that because government officials “like to keep information close,” checkbook websites are especially important for transparency.

“We don’t like other people telling us we’re doing things wrong,” he said. “The result of pulling information in and holding it tight is that public confidence continues to erode.”

Lembo said he was so pleased with OpenCheckbook, which was paid for with existing funds in his budget, that last month he launched OpenBudget, a new feature that will let users compare what was budgeted to what was actually spent.

But not all states have improved their websites enough, according to the U.S. PIRG report.

Fifteen got a C or a D. And California, Alaska and Idaho were graded an F in 2014 and again in 2015. Two of the three don’t have a central one-stop database for searching or viewing details on spending, the report found. Not one of the three provides information on economic development subsidies.

“These three are not user-friendly,” said U.S. PIRG’s Baxandall, who co-authored the report. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Photo: Catch up on your state government. RikkisRefuge Other via Flickr