All states are getting better at financial transparency, but some, like California, lag behind their counterparts. A sixth annual report on government spending transparency conducted by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG – called Following the Money 2015 – analyzed and ranked the 50 states in their efforts to show the public how they’re spending money. California, home to countless tech companies, scored last on the report with a grade of F, just below Idaho and Alaska.
Ohio was the surprise winner with a grade of A+, up from a D- last year, after the launch of a new financial portal under the state’s office of the treasurer, which looks like something one would expect from a successful tech company, not a government agency, said U.S. PIRG Senior policy Analyst Phineas Baxandall.
Transparency efforts were graded based on both the information made available to the public and the functionality the websites provided. Ohio, for instance, scored points for offering citizens a single portal for all information, advanced single-click search functionality, and comprehensive data that includes spending by quasi-government agencies and public-private partnerships.
“States are getting better at this over time,” said Baxandall. “We almost never see states get worse in the six years that we’ve done this, and we see really consistent improvement. When we first did this study six years ago, a little more than half the states had any kind of checkbook-level transparency that has specific transactions. Now all 50 states have some level of that checkbook-level transparency.”
For most states, the report found, launching a transparency portal can be developed for less than $300,000 and maintained for an annual cost in the tens of thousands of dollars. The report cited cost savings from increased efficiencies and reduced information requests as among the benefits of transparency portals, along with the qualitative benefit of providing the public with knowledge about how its government operates.
California ranked poorly for several reasons, the biggest being that the state’s data is spread across multiple agencies and portals.
“If you know where to look, you spend enough time on it and you talk with the government officials, they can point you to places on their websites where you can find a lot of information,” Baxandall said. “But the problem is that’s not really how people find information. That’s like trying to find something on the Internet without a search engine. You need some kind of centralized portal which can show you what you don’t already know.”
As for why California finds itself at the bottom of the pile, Baxandall said he could only guess that politics is getting in the way of the state’s big tech projects. California has had several high-profile tech projects fail in recent years, including the collapse of the Department of Motor Vehicles' $200 million modernization project, an abandonment of the California Case Management System after the state had already spent $500 million, and most recently the debacle called BrEZe, a medical licensing and enforcement system expected to go $68 million over budget. Baxandall noted that California once had a “half-decent” financial portal until a few years ago when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dismantled it in anticipation of a statewide systems integration that has yet to be completed.
Brian Ferguson, deputy director for the California Department of General Services, agreed that the state’s financial accounting isn’t found under one portal for public consumption, but noted that such a heavy emphasis by U.S. PIRG to require states to provide a one-stop shop indicates a flaw in the survey’s methodology.
“Financial data in our state is tracked by multiple agencies including the Department of Finance, State Controller, State Treasurer and Board of Equalization, only one of which is under the control of the executive branch,” Ferguson wrote in an email to Government Technology. “Despite the shortcomings in the report’s methodology, we firmly believe that under the leadership of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., California has made remarkable strides in how we share data (including info on how dollars are spent) with the public.”
California has made advances in open data in recent months, uploading more data sets to its open data portal, and launching a financial data portal under the state controller’s office in September called ByTheNumbers, which opened more than 13 million pieces of financial information. The state’s Financial Information System for California (FI$Cal), a project that has been in development for more than 11 years, would unify more than 2,500 state financial systems, and increase access to purchasing and other financial data to citizens.
Ferguson said the state’s data efforts are “still a work in progress, but are very much on an upward trajectory.”
In Ohio, the new financial portal, implemented under the leadership of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, is user-oriented and makes asking questions about the budget relatively easy. The user can select a year and a department to receive a spending breakdown, or select a category, like food or sick leave, to see how departments and agencies compare for a given time period. Users have access to more than $400 billion in state spending going back to 2008, accounting for more than 112 million transactions and 3.9 billion pieces of information.
Providing a lot of data in a simple way was integral to the design, Mandel said, because they wanted everyone – regardless of technological prowess – to have easy access to government spending data.
“The reason I did this is I believe taxpayers have a right to know how their tax money is being spent, and I think the best way to make government more efficient is to empower citizens to hold politicians accountable,” Mandel said. “My vision is to create an army of citizen watchdogs and in just three months, we’ve had over 130,000 searches. So I think the politicians and other government workers have been put on notice that people are watching.”
Ohio’s portal, which can be found at OhioCheckbook.com, cost the state $814,000 from its existing budget. Mandel said the state expects to recoup that cost in the form of prevented fraud, waste and abuse, all while keeping government bureaucrats honest.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.