As state governments move toward total financial transparency, there is at least one place to look for information on how the states are doing in providing constituents with data on where money is being spent and what results are being achieved with the investment.
Earlier blog posts have elaborated on the current ‘shortcomings’ of state transparency. Data is incomplete. It is not provided in a timely manner. It cannot be easily understood by citizens and elected state leaders.
Currently, there is at least one information source where serious work has been done that can give us a quick glimpse and limited view of how states are doing in executing transparency objectives.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group has published an annual review of state transparency since 2009. U.S. PIRG is the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups which define themselves as standing up to “powerful specials interest on behalf of the American public, working to win concrete results for our health and well-being…With a strong network of researchers, advocates, organizers and students in state capitals across the country, we take on the special interests on issues such as product safety, public health, political corruption, tax and budget reform and consumer protection, where these interests stand in the way of reform and progress.”
US PIRG was the brainchild of consumer activist Ralph Nader in the 1970s and has a distinct liberal activist viewpoint. This doesn’t make their serious report unusable but it does encompass how US PIRG sees transparency through its ideological prism. You can view the full report here: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2014. Pages 33-36 detail the variables used for evaluation and are listed here:
- Searchable by Recipient
- Searchable by Keyword or Fund
- Searchable by Agency
- Excluded Information
- Bulk Downloadable
- Quasi-Public Agencies
- Economic Development Subsidies (EDS) – Checkbook
- EDS – Downloadable
- EDS – Project Public Benefits
- EDS – Actual Public Benefits
- Extra Credit: Recipient Funds
- Tax Expenditure Reports
- Tax Expenditures from Multiple Years
The emphasis of the US PIRG evaluation is the amount and return of “tax expenditures” as little attention is given in looking for benefits provided from the immense amount of state spending on programs and initiatives. Further, no specific distinctions are made for states that have open checkbooks that provide incomplete data, lack multiple year spending comparisons, and ignore projected or actual results for the spending investments.
However, it is serious work. Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data provides a place to better understand what variables need to be examined and how states are working toward the transparency goal.
There are other significant efforts underway that will provide substantially more useful transparency information. The good news is that they are right around the corner. And that’s a great thing for state financial transparency supporters.