States showed significant improvement last year in how well they provided online access to government spending data, according to a state transparency report by U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit, nonpartisan federation of Public Interest Research Groups.
Twenty-one states earned “A” or “B” grades for their efforts in 2011, 12 more states than in 2010. In addition, only five states received failing marks — a 50 percent reduction from last year. The third annual study, Following the Money 2012, rates online state spending transparency systems on a scorecard.
State websites are judged on factors such as whether spending data is searchable, available at the checkbook level and whether information on local government finances is accessible, among other criteria. States are rated on a 0-100 point scale to determine their ranking.
Ryan Pierannunzi, tax and budget associate with U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report, said he was impressed by the increased emphasis states placed on improving their online transparency in 2011.
“There is a noticeable momentum toward progressing to higher standards of transparency by a number of states,” he said. “That’s evidenced by new websites being launched in the past year. Even in states that don’t have brand-new websites, they have introduced tools to make searching easier for users.”
The most improved states from 2010 were West Virginia and Washington. Both improved by 63 points, clocking in at 91 and 85 points, respectively. In addition, eight states created new transparency websites in 2011 — Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota and the aforementioned West Virginia.
Maine ranked the lowest of those eight states with 54 points and a D- minus grade, but also made huge strides from 2010, when it was dead last in the rankings.
Pierannunzi is particularly enamored with the work done by West Virginia. The state received a failing grade on U.S. PIRG’s report card in a year ago, but rebounded for an A- mark with 91 points this year.
“Their new website includes a lot of features we support and serves as an example — especially for smaller states with smaller budgets that are struggling to keep pace with transparency standards,” Pierannunzi said. “It’s not just large states with big budgets that [transparency] is important to. This is something all states need to embrace and West Virginia provides a blueprint for that.”
Washington scored high marks (85 points, a “B” grade) in-part for the various tools the state has made available to access spending data. A mapping tool allows visitors to see where capital projects are in the state. It can divide those projects into legislative districts and counties so citizens can see where money is being spent geographically.
Not all states are improving transparency, according to U.S. PIRG. California had made inroads the last couple of years by developing a transparency website, but it was shuttered last November by Gov Jerry Brown, who justified the closure due to a lack of updated data.
Instead, California now directs those wanting spending data to four different websites in order to search for information. The change was part of the reason California dropped 13 points from the 2011 report and checked in with 49 points and a D- grade this year.
Although California’s spending data is still available, the method now used by the state runs counter to better transparency standards, Pierannunzi said.
“We’re trying to encourage the development of centralized portals as a one-stop shop for any information that citizens could need or want,” he said. “In that sense, California took a really big step backward by shutting down their centralized portal and spreading their information out so it’s more time consuming to track down.”
Aside from introducing a new transparency website, how can states improve access to their spending data online? Pierannunzi said there is low-hanging fruit for states to pluck. Providing a link to a state’s tax expenditure report is a good start, as is linking to city and county budgets.
Posting historical data back to fiscal 2007 and linking to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding data is also a good idea, as is providing links for user feedback.
Pierannunzi said the main emphasis, however, should be putting information in one place so that transparency and access can thrive.
“There are a lot of small improvements that states have made that aren’t as dramatic as launching an entirely new website,” he said. “But once states have these data warehouses that they can build upon and standardize their record-keeping, it’s going to be [more about] maintaining and advancing what is already there.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.