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Massachusetts Puts User-Friendly Checkbook Online

In response to new transparency legislation passed in Massachusetts, the state launched what it’s calling a user-friendly transparency site with information on government spending.

Massachusetts officials are hopeful that an assortment of graphics will help users interpret the state’s spending data posted on a newly launched transparency website.

The Massachusetts Open Checkbook, launched Dec. 5, is a result of legislation passed earlier this year that involved transparency guidelines.

In some cases, transparency websites designed by government have resulted in large amounts of data hastily put online without much thought about how data is presented.

Corey Jenks, the Open Checkbook project manager, said the level of detail and the option to view the spending data in different ways is what makes Massachusetts’ checkbook site different from others of its kind.

“We’ve seen a lot of the other transparency and open checkbook websites, and they all provide a good level of information — but we think that the level of detail that we provide here is very granular down to the actual payments to a vendor on a particular date and the information around that payment,” Jenks said. “The ease of getting [the information] and the level of detail and providing a user-friendly site is what sets us apart.”

The Massachusetts Open Checkbook site has categorized sections and visual aids. Users can view the spending data by vendor, spending category or department. Other categories include a list of state employee payroll as well as retiree pensions. To view the $51.3 billion in spending outlined in the state’s 2011 financial report and view the spending sources, amounts have been divided on the site into percentages on pie charts.

The site reveals the types of spending data displayed on the site, of course. But it also lists the type of spending data that cannot be displayed. According to the site, not all state payments will be visible on the page. For example, information such as child support, lottery winnings, debt service, retiree health care and client names will not be available because the information is considered protected data, according to the state’s announcement.

Marcie Desmond, secretariat CIO of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, said an extensive process was conducted among all of the state agencies to review their data to determine if any of the information should be classified as protected data.

“For example, for the Information Technology Division, we’d never put specific information that would indicate to a potential security hacker where we get our firewalls from,” said Massachusetts CIO John Letchford.

Keeping Transparency Alive

Legislation on transparency guidelines was a leading push for Massachusetts to launch the state’s Open Checkbook. However, some governments are finding it difficult to maintain transparency programs. For example, last month California Gov. Jerry Brown had the state’s transparency website taken down because he said the website’s data hadn’t been properly updated since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office last January.

Letchford said a collaborative effort among state officials needs to take place for a transparency website to be carried out. State Treasurer Steven Grossman, Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez and Comptroller Martin Benison were in agreement that creating a transparency website was the right decision for Massachusetts. And from there, the website can evolve.

“The key to success is not just planning to push the data out there and leave it,” Letchford said. “In general, we look as constituents and residents look to accountability in government. You want to understand, ‘How is government measuring success and performance?’”