Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Citizens typically enjoy access to information on all types of public projects funded by taxpayer dollars, from toll roads to utility systems. But when governments sell these assets or form agreements with private partners, transparency advocates argue it often closes the door to accountability.
Two separate reports released Wednesday indicate information on contractors and quasi-public agencies often remains out of the public view. In many states, quasi-public groups and contractors do not adhere to the same disclosure requirements as governments, curbing the level of transparency.
“Whether it’s quasi-public agencies or contracting out, it’s avoiding the normal scrutiny of government,” said Phineas Baxandall, a U.S. Public Interest Research Group analyst. “There should be more, not less transparency.”
Numerous quasi-public agencies now operate in states, and governments do more business with contractors as they sell or lease assets.
A study by Washington-based advocacy group In The Public Interest is critical of contractors concealing information, outlining numerous examples of embattled companies blocking disclosure of records. In many instances, the absence of records prevented citizens from learning about cost overruns or the fate of failed projects.
In Washington state, plans to redevelop a bridge by private contractor David Evans and Associates were more than two years late and $37 million over budget. When an activist group filed a request seeking the firm’s financial information last year, the company filed a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Transportation to block the release.
"They have a right to seek an injunction and they did. Our hands are tied,” WashDOT spokesman Steve Pierce told The Oregonian.
Another example in the report describes a paramedics company denying the Tulsa World complete personnel data after one technician with a driving record that included a DUI and other offenses was charged with causing a fatal accident in December. Contractors also frequently withhold valuable performance data, the study argues.
In The Public Interest is project of the Partnership for Working Families, which receives a portion of its funding from public employee labor unions. The report calls for inserting language into contracts mandating transparency, better collection of third-party data, further online disclosure and strengthening of transparency laws.
In another report, U.S. Public Interest Research Group graded states’ online transparency efforts. The study identified a lack of information on quasi-public agencies as one of states’ major deficiencies.
The group found only 26 states provide any data at all for quasi-public agencies or public-private partnerships. Baxandall, who co-authored the study, told Governing all states posted little information and no state had listed data for all its quasi-public agencies.
“It’s definitely an area where there’s real room for improvement,” Baxandall said. “If money was being badly spent, taxpayers wouldn’t know about it.”
Collecting data from these agencies presents a challenge. They typically employ different reporting methods and state governments must standardize their data.
West Virginia’s TransparencyWV portal allows citizens to research some quasi-public agencies, but like most states, information is limited. State Auditor Glen Gainer told Governing his office plans to add more data in future updates to the site.
“It is something we know we’re deficient on and will try to get addressed in the next year,” he said.
These groups account for a significant chunk of state budgets. A 2010 Massachusetts PIRG study found 41 Massachusetts quasi-public agencies, representing about a third of government activity based on revenues. These contractors commonly disclosed limited or no budget information to the public, according to the report. A similar 2010 Oregon State PIRG report examined 30 Oregon quasi-public agencies, finding less than half disclosed any financial information online.
Massachusetts is the only state with a specific statutory requirement for disclosing quasi-public agency records online.
Public records laws for quasi-public agencies vary greatly throughout the country. Rules typically differ depending on whether an entity performs a government function, receives public funds or is controlled by a public agency.
Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit tracking state and local government transparency, surveyed state transparency requirements for third-party entities in 2010. The majority of states had passed legislation subjecting some private agencies performing public functions to open records laws.
Still, many such agencies do not fall under the purview of transparency laws. Some firms or groups could be unaware whether they’re subject to records requests when the laws are murky.
And even when they are required, it may not be communicated to employees. Diana Lopez, senior editor for Sunshine Review, said it’s often difficult to pry records from third-party organizations unfamiliar with public records laws.
“Sometimes, there’s a defensiveness that comes from them,” she said. “That attitude is more present in these organizations.”
As more quasi-public agencies are formed and governments opt to privatize operations, transparency advocates will likely further their calls for added disclosure.
GOVERNING By the Numbers is a companion to GOVERNING Data that digests the growing body of work at the intersection of computer-assisted journalism, data visualization and government transparency.
GOVERNING By the Numbers is dedicated to telling important stories through numbers, with a focus on both our original work in data visualization on GOVERING Data and providing an ongoing tally of editor's picks of new and notable data releases of use to those in government and those who care about it.