Web Application Lets Users Track State Government Spending

Texas Comptroller offers searchable spending data for all state agencies.

by / April 28, 2008

Did you know that Angelo State University counted $37,643,968.58 in expenditures in fiscal 2005? About $21,700 of that was spent on printing services.

I didn't have to wade through reams of paper to find that out; all it took was a few keystrokes on an easy-to-use online database developed by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts (CPA). The user-friendly application, Where the Money Goes, allows the public to search all state government expenditures as far back as 2000 by state agency, spending category, vendor or purchasing code.

It's available at the Web site.

"For our transparency initiative, I think the approach was to make sure that taxpayers can see how money is spent. We hoped that by putting it out there, people would find that information valuable and useful, and so far we've received good, positive comments on the information," said Victor Gonzalez, director of innovation and chief technology officer of the Texas Comptroller's Office.

The service went fully live in October 2007.

"But it really started back when the Comptroller [Susan Combs] came in to office on her third day [in January 2007]. We had posted [the] CPA's expenditures that day, down to pencil purchasing levels, so that [the] CPA could set the trend for posting that information out there," Gonzalez said.

Then, the Texas Legislature passed HB 3430 that called for a "one-stop shop" for publicly available accounting data.

In subsequent development phases, the CPA posted the expenditures reported by the state's 24 largest agencies, which account for 80 percent of the state's $99.5 billion annual state spending.

For the final iteration of Where the Money Goes, the CPA's Fiscal Management Division developed a "simple drill-down Web application" that integrated a pre-existing "cash drill" already in use. The application development cost $310,000.

Texas luckily had a built-in advantage when it started to write code for Where the Money Goes because the expenditures were already collected in the Uniform Statewide Accounting System. According to Gonzalez, about 82 of the state's 181 "internal users" feed their expenditure data directly into the system, and the rest report it monthly to the Comptroller.

"That's one of things I think that Texas is unique in -- we already had the information, so what we were really trying to solve was a technical problem more than anything else. Other states have to go to get the information from their agencies and their higher-ed institutions -- then aggregate, and then try to solve it." Gonzalez said.

Officials from Tennessee, Nevada and Washington state have inquired about starting their own version of Where the Money Goes. Only Missouri has an online system that's similar, Gonzalez said.

Texas is already looking ahead. The state assembled a new working group that's exploring how to make the application even easier to use, with more powerful features. Gonzalez said one idea is making the reporting structure "example-based" so the public can figure out how much the state spends on particular items, e.g., pencils and paper.

"I think for people who are query-tool savvy, they've all liked it; we've gotten very good feedback from them because it's point-and-click and go," he said. "But for people who aren't familiar, who just want to know how much the state is spending on new chairs, we would have to provide them a way to do that."

 

Matt Williams Associate Editor