Setting Off a Race for Fiscal Transparency

As Ohio has shown, it's not that hard for states to give citizens the information they need on how public money is spent.

by Josh Mandel and Phineas Baxandall / April 6, 2015

An open government is one in which citizens are empowered to hold their elected officials accountable. Even in today's atmosphere of hyper-partisanship, leaders from across the political spectrum can agree that advancing the cause of transparency is integral for enabling taxpayers to follow the money.

In 2010, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) developed a scorecard to grade all 50 states' online-transparency initiatives, and specifically how well they provide public access to checkbook-level spending data. The goal was to spark competition that would inspire, motivate and in some cases publicly pressure state-government leaders across the country to improve the transparency of their fiscal operations.

U.S. PIRG's state rankings for 2015 were recently released, and nowhere was there a better turnaround story than in Ohio. Two years ago, Ohio had received a grade of D-plus. Taken aback by that grade -- which dropped again in 2014, to D-minus -- the Ohio treasurer's office (led by one of the authors of this column, state Treasurer Josh Mandel) set out to meet and even surpass best practices for making budgets, contracts, subsidies and "off-budget" expenditures open to public scrutiny. That effort has paid off dramatically, raising the state's transparency ranking from a dismal 46th last year to first in the nation in 2015, with Ohio earning the first-ever A-plus grade.

To accomplish this feat, the treasurer's office created OhioCheckbook.com. This cutting-edge website, built in 18 months at a cost of $814,000, breaks the all-too-typical mold of a hard-to-navigate government data-dump warehouse and adopts a look and feel similar to what a user would expect from the best in online technology.

Instead of just displaying rows and columns of data, for example, OhioCheckbook.com features a powerful Google-style search engine and fully interactive charts to drill down and compare more than $408 billion in spending over the past seven years. Want to know whether public dollars were used for lodging state-government workers at Disney World? Yes, the highway department spent $1,198.17 on that over the last two years. Curious about which companies had subsidy dollars reclaimed for not delivering on promises to the Ohio Job Creation Tax Credit program? The answer is just a few clicks away. Anyone with a smartphone or Internet connection can quickly navigate spending data on everything from office supplies to multimillion-dollar road expenditures.

We are highlighting OhioCheckbook.com because it shows what a state can do in just a short time when public officials are committed to fiscal transparency. We hope to raise the bar for other states and to continue to push the limit by making last year's cutting-edge next year's normal.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted a century ago, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Nowhere is this truer today than in the quest to improve government spending decisions and eliminate waste. And the rapid rise of new technology is emboldening Americans to demand deeper access to public information.

Sometimes, however, governments need a little incentive to break from the status quo and embrace new technologies and innovative ideas. Citizens and watchdog groups similarly need help accessing specific information to spark productive debate about the management of tax dollars. Technology-aided transparency is part of the solution.

Over the last five years, the U.S. PIRG transparency report card has evolved into an important tool to set baseline standards to providing online information on expenditures of tax dollars. It has helped states compare their levels of transparency while encouraging best practices and lighting a fire under states lagging behind the curve.

As a result of this and other transparency efforts, every state in the nation has significantly improved online access to government spending data. For example, five years ago only a minority of states enabled keyword searches of their contract databases. Today, only a handful fail to do so.

Shining light on spending decisions made deep in the bureaucracy increases public scrutiny and government accountability. If effective, it can also increase the public's confidence in their elected leaders. That's a goal that everyone -- wherever they are on the political spectrum -- ought to be able to agree with.

This column was originally published by Governing. VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government.