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Government Must Use Technology for Real-Time Transparency — Here’s Why

Some state governments are not making it easy for their elected officials or their citizens to see where money is being spent and what results are being achieved.

Consider this latest example. The actual name of the state has been omitted, as it would be a terrible embarrassment to its statewide elected leaders, its legislature, and, of course, its citizens.

One state, in response to a simple query for expenses across all agencies, returns 388,366 pages of numbers (55 lines per page). There is no “jump to the last page” button, so in order to see the total; you must click the next button three hundred and eighty eight thousand times.

Really? To see the total of expenses financed by tax dollars.

The word inexcusable comes to mind.

There is a better way. But elected leaders, state employees and taxpayers must demand it.

Here are some of the more interesting results from recent research on the current state of state transparency, accountability and use of analytics (percentages based on fifty states):

1% – offer any kind of analytic tool

10% – have no transparency website at all

0% – offer any budget vs. actual reporting

4% – include dates with their financial transactions

22% – of expense reports are not searchable

7% – correlate expenses with vendor contracts

And these statistics do not include the very specific transparency activities contained within the offices of statewide elected offices for Governor, Lt. Governor, Auditor, Treasurer, Attorney General and Secretary of State. It also does not include the various legislative bodies across the nation.

As we all know, using technology to enhance decision-making continues to impact institutions all around us. This technological evolution is occurring daily and has affected different industries in different ways. Also remember that different technologies do and mean different things for different people.

In the 1970s, the banking industry underwent a massive technology re-tooling that drove immense improvement in their operations and capability. Fraud was vastly reduced, check processing time was cut from weeks to seconds, and the underpinnings of today’s online and electronic banking were created and stabilized.

In the 1980s, the healthcare industry experienced the same technological upheaval when the concept of Computerized Patient Medical Records (CPMR) became a reality. Insurance fraud was vastly reduced, the quality patient care was improved in every way, and the entire industry took a giant leap forward.

Starting in the 1990s, virtually every industry experienced a technological re-tooling focused around the Internet and the new capabilities that it presented. Retailers opened online stores, a company web site became a necessity, and a new management technology called ERP (enterprise resource planning) emerged, replacing conventional accounting systems with ERP systems that managed the entire enterprise, not just the check book. This technological re-tooling allowed businesses to accomplish what was unimaginable just a decade earlier.

Government technology has yet to experience this transition. The reasons are many, but they all relate to the fractured way in which government does business. There are 50 states, and exactly 50 different ways to perform basic functions like the DMV, transportation services, social service programs, maintenance services, etc.

New technologies are emerging that recognizes this reality and at its core, embraces this diversity instead of being impaired by it. The driving element of this positive transformation is transparency – real-time transparency. The voters are demanding it. Leading political figures in both parties are embracing it.

State government has a long way to go. By recognizing the current shortcomings, including those above, state government insiders and outsiders can clamor for the positive, transformative change needed to drive both effectiveness and efficiency.

As we approach November’s election (132 days to go), look for more candidates for office and those incumbents defending their jobs talking about empowering people with real-time financial transparency. After all, it’s our money and we all have a right to know where it is spent and what results are being achieved with it.

Our state governments and all our citizens will be better for it.

David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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