It was only a few short years ago that many states still didn’t provide spending transparency information online. Now, for the first time, all 50 states maintain websites with checkbook-level data, allowing citizens to dig deeper into how governments spend taxpayer dollars.
U.S. Public Interest Research Group examined each state in a report published today, finding many made significant improvements in the area of online transparency. The consumer advocacy group scrutinized the extent to which states posted a range of expenditures and made information easily accessible, issuing grades to each state government.
Every state had established some form of a spending transparency website as of earlier this year, all of which were searchable except for California and Vermont’s website. When U.S. PIRG first began reviewing online transparency initiatives in early 2010, only 32 maintained such websites.
“The norm that government transactions should be available like your checkbook is really solidifying,” said Phineas Baxandall, a co-author of the report.
Seven states earned scores in the “A” range, with Texas receiving the nation’s top overall score. Nine others received “B” grades.
Researchers reviewed each state’s website, looking for spending information on contracts, non-contracted expenditures, grants and subsidies. In addition, the group assessed how readily available data was searchable or downloadable in centralized web portal sites.
Six states established new transparency sites within the past year.
Arkansas launched a transparency web portal in July, detailing $1.9 billion in contracts and $7 billion in other spending. Idaho, another state that historically ranked near the bottom of the group’s scorecard, began posting data on Transparent Idaho in January. Information on the website, operated by the state controller, includes workforce data, travel expenditures and state contracts.
The report also credits Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania and Vermont with implementing new transparency portals.
As states continue to publish more data, Baxandall said it’s important that they also let the public know what isn’t available online. Some state agencies trail others in posting expenditures. Other information, such as the identities of certain law enforcement personnel, may be protected by law. Baxandall cited Maine and Massachusetts as two states that do a good job of outlining what information is excluded.
U.S. PIRG issued failing grades to five states: California, Hawaii, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Although the states maintain transparency websites, they offered only limited information and made it difficult for citizens to track down records, the report said.
The majority of states fail to post detailed information about economic development subsidies and only eight list both the projected and actual number of jobs created by tax credits. Expenditures for quasi-public agencies and public-private partnerships were also absent from 16 states’ sites, the report found.
For states with subpar transparency websites, cost is often cited as a concern. The report, though, found states’ direct expenditure budgets did not correlate with transparency scores. Baxandall said some state agency executives occasionally resist posting their data on a consolidated statewide portal page.
While there’s still room for improvement, Baxandall emphasized most states made dramatic progress in recent years.
“Fifteen years ago, a state being transparent meant that if you went to the right office and knew exactly what form to ask for, you might get what you wanted a few weeks later,” he said.
The report did not fault any state for weakening its online transparency efforts. However, tightening of the scoring criteria meant that some states saw their grades drop this year while others made enhancements to their sites.
(By Mike Maciag)