Report: States Make Significant Strides in Transparency

Several states upgraded their transparency efforts last year, while others lag behind. See how each state ranked in a new report.
by | March 14, 2012 AT 1:50 PM

Eight states launched new transparency websites while others bolstered similar initiatives aimed at shedding light on government spending in 2011, a new report finds.

U.S. Public Interest Research Group rated transparency initiatives for all 50 states in its annual report released this morning to coincide with Sunshine Week. Although some states lag behind, the study found several made significant strides in posting spending information online.

“Years from now, people will look at the lack of transparency we had just a few years ago and find it unimaginable,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at U.S. PIRG.

It’s an issue that transcends party lines. The study found political party control did not correspond to performance of transparency initiatives. States with Democratic and Republican governors scored nearly identical averages.

States scoring the highest in the study were:

  • Texas: 98 (A)
  • Kentucky: 96 (A)
  • Indiana: 93 (A-)
  • Louisiana: 92 (A-)
  • Massachusetts: 92 (A-)

U.S. PIRG assigned scores to every state transparency website based on types of data available, searching capabilities and other defined criteria.

Iowa, Arkansas, Montana and Idaho all received failing grades, providing only “limited or superficial information” on expenditures, according to the report. Wyoming’s website also was slapped with an ‘F’ for excluding local spending, historical expenses and other basic data.

Other states made significant progress. Baxandall, who co-authored the study, cited West Virginia as a state making noteworthy improvements.

“Nationally, it’s a real lift off,” he said. “We’ve gotten off the ground and progress is accelerating.”

West Virginia launched its TransparencyWV site in August, providing detailed spending and revenue data. Before, the state’s existing websites primarily served vendors, not the public.

State Auditor Glen Gainer said the state’s failing grade last year prompted the state to build the new site. “It was a wake-up call to us last year that we were not making the grade,” he said.

The state already had much of the data, but it was not stored on a user-friendly centralized website. The project, which cost an estimated $50,000 to $60,000, was up and running after about three months of development, Gainer said.

TransparencyWV now serves as the state’s primary data repository, with vendor payments, stimulus funds and other spending across multiple agencies. The site features interactive charts and historical numbers, most of which date back 10 years.

“We care very deeply about transparency and providing as much info to taxpayers so they can hold us accountable,” Gainer said.

The study says it’s this type of accountability that exemplifies Transparency 2.0, enabling citizens to easily find what they’re looking for.

“Transparency 2.0 is making information available in a way in which is one stop, one click and comprehensive so that you don’t have to search across a scattered quilt of agencies you may have never heard of,” Baxandall said.

Gainer said his office plans to further enhance the website with additional details for payments, along with expanded search capabilities.

At a time when many states face budget cuts, transparency portals are a valuable resource to better understand spending. Citizens view raw numbers on their computer screens, giving them a hands-on look at budgets and where taxpayer dollars go.

"They can help point us in the direction of where the cuts should be by having more information and more knowledge,” Gainer said.

In Massachusetts, the state Legislature previously passed a bill mandating online transparency, allocating $540,000 for a new portal. The state’s Open Checkbook tool launched in December with detailed spending data across state agencies, updated nightly.

Much of the site was modeled after efforts to post federal Recovery Act spending online. Jeffrey Simon, director of the state’s Recovery and Reinvestment Office, said the state reexamined all its systems to pull the data into one website.

“What we tried to do was to try to make that connection where data becomes information,” he said. “We see this as an important step in helping to build trust.”

Open Checkbook topped 100,000 page views its first week, and had received more than 300,000 hits through the end of January.

Simon said the site covers about two-thirds of all state expenditures. But, equally importantly, the state lists what is not included in the data, such as statutorily-protected information and data unavailable from quasi-government agencies.

Local newspapers used the Massachusetts portal to dig up information for stories. Transparency portals often lead to cost savings for governments, too, as fewer open records requests are filed once information is posted online.

In addition, Simon said the site serves as a management tool for administrators. Reports they previously requested from staff or other offices are now right at their fingertips.

“We’re seeing a lot of creative uses within state government,” Simon said.

Citizens also browse transparency sites in Massachusetts and elsewhere for their own research. Even though many don’t visit the sites, Baxandall said knowing they can find the information is just as important.

While states made progress over the year, much room for improvement remains. Check back tomorrow for another post on areas where states’ transparency efforts are lacking.

State Grades