How Do State Portals Stack Up on Transparency?

In a new report, Texas and Kentucky get high marks, while Maine is criticized for lack of transparency.
by | March 16, 2011
 

Elected officials love to tout the importance of transparency – but how well do states actually stack up?

The United States Public Interest Research Group released its report on Wednesday ranking how well states provide online access to spending information.

The good news: Transparency is improving. Fourteen states created transparency sites or made big improvements since the organization’s last report on the subject. The bad news: there’s still room for improvement, says Phineas Baxandall, co-author of the report.

Texas and Kentucky got the highest ratings – each earned a 96 out of 100 from the organization. Maine scored the worst, earning a 0. It only provides “checkbook-level” information on government spending to registered vendors.

U.S. PIRG also gave high marks to Indiana, Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio and Oregon. Their information is “highly searchable” and provides detailed information on contracts, tax subsidies and grants to businesses, according to the report.

The organization gave “F” ratings to Maine as well as Iowa, Arkansas, West Virginia, Washington, Montana, New Hampshire, Idaho and North Dakota.

“Given the current severity of our budget problems, citizens must be able to follow the money,” Baxandall said in a statement.

(States in dark red had the worst-rated sites. Article continues below the map.)

U.S. PIRG says a strong transparency site should be a user-friendly Web portal that is searchable and includes information on contracts, spending, subsidies and tax expenditures for all government entities. It should also be a one-stop site -- so residents don't have dig around through various agency portals -- and should allow residents to browse through categories such as amount, recipient or key word.

Other states have gone beyond those guidelines to provide even more transparency. Maryland's site includes information on loans it makes to specific companies. New Jersey shows residents from which sources specific agencies get their revenue.

States encounter challenges to building the sites, including their cost, difficulty coordinating with different agencies, and dated accounting systems that make it hard to obtain and consolidate data.

But U.S. PIRG contends that the sites actually aren't tremendously expensive. Texas, for example, spent $310,000 in its site, while Kentucky used its existing budget funds plus a $150,000 supplement to create its portal.

And those sites can help states save in the long-run by reducing the number of public information request that officials must processed. The largest savings -- reduced fraud and abuse because government workers and contractors alike know spending information is public -- can't be measured, Baxandall told Governing.

This is the second year U.S. PIRG has conducted the study. Thirty-nine states provided feedback for the report.

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