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GCN : September 2015
STATE SPENDING 24 GCN SEPTEMBER 2015 • GCN.COM tion of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers. “More transparency provides better information for all of those involved, whether they be citizens, contractors or legislative bodies.” GRADING STATES Now in its sixth year, the U.S . PIRG report evaluates and grades states on their online transparency initiatives and how well they provide access to spending data. It examines whether checkbook sites offer comprehensive, one-stop, one-click access to users and whether it makes large sets of data easy to download. A growing number of states are doing a better job. Fourteen got an A this year, up from eight last year. Louisiana and Illinois were among those that improved their grades. Other states that have made prog- ress include Colorado, which got a B-plus after it overhauled its portal to make it easier to use, and Kansas, which vaulted from a D-minus to a B by revamping its site to make infor- mation more accessible and easier to download. Connecticut, which got an A for the first time this year, recently launched OpenCheckbook, an easy- to-use, comprehensive site that al- lows users to search real-time infor- mation about payments to vendors, nonprofit groups and others. “You not only have direct access to micro and macro information about the operation of state government, but you can search it, compare it, trend it and download big datasets,” said state Comptroller Kevin Lembo. “I’d like to think that we’re push- ing the envelope in this area.” He added that because government officials tend to want to keep information close, checkbook websites are especially important for transparency. “We don’t like other people telling us we’re doing things wrong,” he said. “The result of pulling information in and holding it tight is that public confidence continues to erode.” Lembo said he was so pleased with OpenCheckbook, which was paid for with existing funds, that last month he launched OpenBudget, a new feature that will let users compare what was budgeted to what was actually spent. But not all states have improved their websites enough, according to U.S . PIRG. Fifteen got a C or a D. And Cali- fornia, Alaska and Idaho received an F in 2014 and again in 2015. Two of those three do not have a central da- tabase for searching or viewing de- tails on spending, the report states, and not one of them provides infor- mation on economic development subsidies. “These three are not user-friendly,” said Baxandall, who co-authored the report. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.” OHIO OUT IN FRONT After last year’s embarrassment for Ohio, Mandel said he embarked on a mission to create an online tool that would empower taxpayers to hold state government accountable. The result was a website that Baxan- dall calls state of the art. OhioCheckbook.com features in- teractive charts and uses a Google- style search engine that’s easy to navigate. It lists every state gov- ernment expenditure, the official responsible for each contract and his or her contact information. Us- ers can search, compare, share and download information on more than $473 billion in spending from the past eight fiscal years. “This site is not built with the MIT computer science ma- jor in mind,” Mandel said. “It’s built with the most basic computer user in mind.” He added that 284,000 searches have been conducted on the site since its launch in December. The site was built in 18 months and cost $814,000, all of which came from his existing budget. “We’re confident this will save taxpayers money,” he said. “Politicians and bureaucrats are thinking more about their expenditures because they know it’s going to be posted online.” Mandel said his next move is to convince the state’s more “It’s extremely important because you have a new set of eyes on this information, not just those of someone in government.” LAVITA TUFF, SUNLIGHT FOUNDATION 0915gcn_022-025.indd 24 9/2/15 9:13 AM