To combat a budget deficit of nearly $500 million, West Virginia State Auditor John B. McCuskey is launching a new open data platform that will make it easier for everyone — from ordinary citizens up through actual policymakers — to find, analyze and disseminate specific information about government spending.
This new platform, a product of a partnership between McCuskey’s office and the gov tech company OpenGov, is expected to have a simple and intuitive interface, not unlike Google’s search feature, which will allow interested parties to track how tax money is being spent.
McCuskey, who began his term in January after campaigning on a platform of increased budget transparency, said the hope is that a better-informed citizenry will lead to West Virginia being more responsible with tax dollars.
“We have a pretty significant budget crisis in West Virginia right now, and it is my personal opinion that the best way to solve a budget crisis is to involve the taxpayers as much as possible into the spending of their money,” McCuskey told Government Technology. “The OpenGov platform creates a bridge between the citizen and the spending of their tax dollars, to the point that the information allows them to interact with their government in such a way that they can help control spending, and spending control needs to come from the taxpayers because history has borne out that governments are bad at controlling their own spending.”
Previously, West Virginia’s financial information was available through a website built within the government. McCuskey said that site was good, but this new site will be a major improvement, seeing as it’s being built by leading experts in the field.
In addition to its Google-style search capabilities, the platform, dubbed the OpenGov Smart Government Cloud, will allow lawmakers to share complex financial info in easy-to-read formats. The public will also be able to compile information into reports, McCuskey said, churning out materials that make them look like veteran financial managers. The state auditor’s office expects to have the platform live and operational in the coming months.
This effort is part of a regional trend sparked by Josh Mandel, Ohio’s state treasurer. McCuskey said he so greatly admired the digital transparency efforts undertaken by Mandel that he contacted him and asked to be put in touch with the company that collaborated on the work — OpenGov.
Tim Melton, director of strategic accounts for OpenGov, said his company is creating a platform for West Virginia that is capable of hourly updates about even the most granular public spending, from how much money goes to public schools down to which state offices are buying pizza for lunch.
OpenGov also plans to create a prominent landing page for West Virginia, analytics reports and FAQ pages, in addition to providing guidance for getting the public to engage and pay attention.
In addition, Melton said an understated benefit of the platform is that putting scrutiny on public spending discourages fraud while also helping to avoid misunderstandings about spending. For example, he described a recent odd-looking transaction in which it appeared as if government money had been spent at Victoria's Secret. However, it turned out that Victoria's Secret owned a billboard that a government agency was buying space on. OpenGov’s platform allows public servants to annotate such spending to avoid any potential confusion.
“At OpenGov we only do government, that’s all we do,” Melton said, adding that the OpenGov team is seeing a trend among elected and appointed officials coming into office. "There’s generally a thirst out there to make a lot more of this data public, and we’re definitely seeing a trend throughout the country. We expect this just to be the tip of the iceberg.”