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Phineas Baxandall Headshot

In The Public Interest : States Make Spending More Transparent, but Some Far Ahead of Others

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Ten years ago, "public record" meant that if you wanted information about government activities and you knew the proper agency and who to visit there, then you could request photocopies of documents by their proper bureaucratic code. If you could wait for officials to locate the documents and perhaps pay for their copying costs, then you were likely to eventually get what you asked for.

Today, for all practical purposes, publicly available information means being online. We chiefly get information through the web. We expect large pools of information to be searchable and organized in menus or otherwise made easily accessible to outsiders. We are accustomed to being able to easily access our cellphone minutes, the location of our delivery package, or the home prices on any particular block in a few keystrokes.

It's no surprise that Americans want similar access to information about how their government spends money. Transparency in government expenditures promotes fiscal responsibility, checks corruption, and bolsters public confidence in government. We need more of it.

A new report which I co-authored for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group documents the good news that transparency is on the march among the states. The third in a series of annual studies, "Following the Money 2012: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data" grades the 50 states on their transparency practices and highlights best practices. It finds the website operated by Texas' independently-elected comptroller, tops the list among other states in the "A" range, followed by Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, West Virginia, Massachusetts and Arizona. The five states receiving an "F" grade were Wyoming, Iowa, Arkansas, Montana, and Idaho. There was no partisan pattern of Red or Blue states performing better and Washington and West Virginia showed the greatest improvement last year.

Beyond the individual state rankings, the larger picture is one of dramatic progress. This year's report found that 46 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with "checkbook-level" detail, a major increase from 32 states two years ago. As another example, twenty-nine states now provide information on government expenditures through the tax code, up from eight states two years ago. Likewise, 39 states how show spending on economic development subsidies or grants, compared to 28 two years ago.

Spending transparency portals are popular with the public. An overwhelming majority -- 91 percent -- of Americans believe state officials have a responsibility to provide financial information to the public in a way that is understandable to average citizens. This is not some abstract desire. Surveys indicate that thirty percent of the public have tried to search the Web for information about how their state government raises and spends taxpayer dollars.

States that have created high quality websites have also put them to good use. For example, based on information from its transparency website, Texas was able to renegotiate its copier machine lease to save $33 million over three years and negotiate prison food contracts to save $15.2 million. Once South Dakota's new transparency website was launched, an emboldened reporter requested additional information on subsidies that led legislators to save about $19 million per year by eliminating redundancies in their economic development program. Utah's transparency website revealed that the state government was spending $294,000 on bottled water every year. The discovery allowed the state to reduce its annual bottled water expenditure to approximately $85,000. Online transparency saves millions more by reducing the number of expensive information requests and the postage, paper, and staff time that it takes to respond to them.

The biggest savings from transparency are likely the ones we'll never hear about -- because of avoided waste or abuse now that contractors and government officials know the public is looking over their shoulder.