Public criticism sometimes is all the motivation that’s needed to spur a government to change its ways. Such was the case in Maryland, where a subpar grade from a government watchdog inspired the state to improve the transparency of its financial reporting.
In December 2010, state government watchdog Good Jobs First released a report ranking Maryland 18th in the nation on how well it disclosed state economic development subsidies, and gave the department a “D+” grade overall for the transparency of that particular subset of information. According to the report, Illinois ranked No. 1 at the time with a “B” grade.
In response to the lagging ranking, the Maryland Business and Economic Development Department — responsible for running the state government’s finance programs and business incentives — earlier this month launched a new online tool called the Finance Tracker. Officials said the website allows users to more easily view which businesses have received grants, tax credits, equity investments and loan enhancements from the department.
“The goal of Finance Tracker is to both inspire interest in our finance programs and help businesses and entrepreneurs understand the types of financing available by perusing the nature and number of qualified recipients,” the department’s secretary Christian Johansson said in a statement.
Users can search by program, company, county, industry code or fiscal year, or can view the list in its entirety, which dates back to fiscal 2009.
Mandates require the department to provide online reports that outline how much money is spent on some of the incentive programs, but not every program, said Karen Glenn Hood, a spokeswoman for the department. Although not required, the department chose to provide reports on all financial programs — even for programs for which reports are not mandated.
Before the tracker was made available, Hood said the department would only create the financial reports and made them accessible in a PDF only to businesses involved in one of the state’s financial programs.
Thomas Cafcas, a research analyst for Good Jobs First, said that in the past, finding information in Maryland’s reports was difficult. “Before, [the information] was sort of buried in a PDF report that you ready had to know how to find in order to read it,” Cafcas said.
So to make accessing the information more user-friendly, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s StateStat Office and the Business and Economic Development Department’s offices of finance, IT and interactive marketing worked together to launch the tracker.
“It gets kind of cumbersome to open up all those reports,” Hood said. “So we sat down and we thought, ‘What’s a more efficient, easy way to get this information into our business community and into the hands of our citizens?’”
She said the tool was developed completely in-house and customized using existing programming technology already in use by the department. Because the tool was developed internally, there were no additional costs associated with the project.
Hood said the tracker is updated when a year’s fiscal report is audited and completed. But the department is looking into performing an audit of the information on a quarterly basis. That, however, likely will not occur until fiscal 2013.