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GCN : September 2015
GCN SEPTEMBER 2015 • GCN.COM 23 Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel was morti- fied last year when a consumer watchdog group gave his state a D-minus for transparency in providing online ac- cess to information on government spending. And he de- cided to do something about it. In December, Mandel’s office launched a user-friendly, cutting-edge financial transparency website that this year earned Ohio the only A-plus in a national review of state websites that tell the public how state government spends taxpayer money. Every state now runs some kind of public accountabil- ity — or “checkbook” — site with the goal of increasing transparency and accountability. But although many states have been ramping up their efforts to make their sites ac- cessible and comprehensive, some still have a long way to go. Eighteen states’ sites received grades of C, D or F in an annual evaluation this year by the U.S . Public Interest Research Group. State checkbook websites vary considerably. Some are easy to use and provide lots of information with one click, making it easy for users to unearth information. Others are difficult to navigate or don’t contain as much information. “If you were to compare Ohio with Alaska or Idaho, you’d see huge differences in how user-friendly [the site] is,” said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst at U.S . PIRG. Every year, states spend hundreds of billions of dollars on contracts with vendors and nonprofit organizations; subsidies, such as tax credits, for companies to spur devel- opment; and other expenditures. States created checkbook websites to share information about that spending with the public so that taxpayers could know who is getting the money and for what purpose. “It’s extremely important because you have a new set of eyes on this information, not just those of someone in gov- ernment,” said LaVita Tuff, a policy analyst at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes open government. State financial officials say checkbook websites can help save money by identifying inefficiencies and reducing the amount of time employees spend fulfilling information re- quests. Also, posting contract information on the websites can result in more competition and lower bids. Interested vendors might see that they could win a contract by offer- ing a lower price, and state agencies might see that they could consolidate contracts to get a better deal. For instance, Massachusetts saved $3 million by elimi- nating paper, postage and printing expenses related to information requests by state agencies and paperwork from vendors, according to U.S . PIRG. Texas was able to renegotiate its copier machine lease and save $33 million over three years. And in South Dakota, a reporter used the website to launch an investigation into subsidies that led to the state saving about $19 million by eliminating redundancies. “I think these websites are very important,” said Kin- ney Poynter, executive director of the National Associa- OhioCheckbook.com OhioCheckbook.com features interactive charts and uses a Google-style search engine that’s easy to navigate. It lists every state government expenditure, the official responsible for each contract and his or her contact information. Users can search, compare, share and download information on more than $473 billion in spending from the past eight fiscal years. BY JENNI BERGAL 0915gcn_022-025.indd 23 9/2/15 9:13 AM