State Controller Brandon Woolf said Idaho residents deserve a user-friendly, searchable expenditure database to hold agencies accountable and to build trust. The portal adds a layer of detail not possible in previous efforts.
Nine months ago, Idaho embarked on a mission to create a user-friendly, searchable government expenditure database for residents.
Transparent Idaho, designed by OpenGov, launched last week and features visual representations of agency spending, the ability to share findings on social media, a new desktop and mobile interface, and data that is updated nightly. OpenGov is included in the 2019 GovTech 100, an annual list that highlights companies focused on, making a difference in and selling to state and local government agencies. The OpenGov contract costs the State Controller’s Office $125,000 annually.
State Controller Brandon Woolf, who’s advocated for online transparency since taking office in 2013, said he’d still like to add more to the platform.
“It’s the citizens’ money and they have the right to know how that money is being spent. It goes back to helping build back that trust in government,” Woolf said. “If you know someone is watching, am I going to make that expenditure as a state agency or as an employee now?”
Shortly after taking office, Woolf oversaw the first iteration of Transparent Idaho, but he said it didn’t have the level of detail provided in the new upgrade. For example, the previous system would show a department’s expenses on fuel, but the new platform has the capability to show which gas station is frequented for fill-ups.
“My vision and where I want to take it long term, and we don’t have the dates yet for that, is how can we include local government?” Woolf said. “For example, how can I get the 44 counties here in Idaho and the 208 cities, and the 115 school districts and other taxing districts. I would love that to have one portal that a citizen can go on there and look.”
Project Communications Manager Mackenzie Smith said in the short term the State Controller’s Office is working on a search bar for the Transparent Idaho homepage that will take users to a specific data entry. Currently, a person must access the report platform and then key in their search. Smith said the feature should be live before the end of June.
“As we get more and more data, the search functionality is going to become more and more important for an end user,” she said. “We want to ensure that the site has ease of use and ease of finding the information.”
Smith said local governments have shown interest in submitting data to be added to the platform. She said her office is developing a process for how to solicit counties and cities for information and how to add it to the database.
Woolf said he is optimistic about how Transparent Idaho will be received at the county, municipal and district levels.
“I think everyone’s for it. That’s the beauty of it. Whatever party you’re in, whatever your thinking is, everyone loves this,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ll ever find someone to say, ‘Oh, transparency is bad.'”
Idaho joins the ranks of other states that have implemented OpenGov platforms, such as Ohio and West Virginia.
OpenGov Vice President of Sales Tim Melton said the government agencies his company works with view transparency as the foundation for operational efficiency and effective decision-making.
“I think the need and the desire at the state level to be more transparent is helpful, but it’s not what’s really driving the activity,” Melton said. “A lot of the activity is driven by what they can do with the data. No one is looking at transparency as the endgame. They’re looking at it as the first step in a way to make their office more efficient and to drive better value, and data happens to be the backbone of it.”
Woolf, though, said it’s about changing the old-school way of thinking within Idaho state departments.
“This approach is changing that culture to say, ‘We’re putting it all out there and letting them have that and be able to get to it without having to do a public information request,’” he said. “Which I think comes into the next question: ‘Will people understand it, and will they take things out of context?’ That may happen, but I think that’s our opportunity to educate and teach and explain that as we move forward.”