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The Challenges of Current State Transparency Models

“A good set of financials tells the story of your enterprise. Transparency should do the same.”

Our citizens (all of us) work hard to generate tax dollars to support government programs to improve the quality of life. If you are like me, you believe Americans have the right know where and how their tax dollars are being invested and what results are being achieved with those investments.

Frankly, government leaders owe it to constituents to be exceptional stewards with citizens’ money. Americans across all party, ideological, and demographic lines are clamoring for more government financial information as government continues to grow.

A survey conducted for the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) in 2010 revealed that 75% of respondents called the availability of government financial management information as “extremely” or “very” important. This was up from the 2008 survey that asked a similar question.

Moreover, levels of “Not very satisfied or not at all satisfied” were three times higher when compared to “Extremely satisfied or very satisfied,” with state government at 49 percent to 15 percent. The survey emphasized… “The implication is clear – traditional forms of communicating financial information to taxpayers are not working.”

The AGA outlined what the organization believes should be provided in communications to taxpayers:

  • Clear and understandable
  • Updated regularly and often
  • Delivered to all and easy to locate
  • Honest in breadth and technically accurate in detail.

AGA should be applauded for its clarity and focus. It is great to know that a 15,000 member association wants to bring real transparency to all levels of government (our focus here is on state government but all results can be viewed at: AGA Survey

But how does the current state “open checkbook” effort stack up against these four principles and is the story of how government money is being spent and what results are being achieved for that investment being told?

Tragically, no.

Current state ‘open checkbook’ sites fall far short. No story is being told… which is both sad and inexcusable. But I am hopeful that by pointing out the shortcomings, real efforts will be made to ensure state financial transparency sites and technologies actually exceed what the public so desperately desires.

California currently represents the worst of state transparency as current Governor Jerry Brown actually turned the site off and then made the audacious claim of still supporting transparency. See it for yourself: http://www.reportingtransparency.ca.gov.

And, no, you can’t find everything you should be able to see easily and clearly.

Moreover, the underlying features and data vary dramatically across all states. One survey I was involved in indicated there are over 200+ feature attributes associated with state transparency. Here are some common problems across virtually all states that need to be addressed:

  • Web site composition and technology – For many states, just finding the transparency site can be problematic, as it is often not linked to the front page of a state site or is linked to a familiar site for state residents. The page load time should be less than 1-2 seconds; virtually all take much, much longer. Government IT or budget experts should not be expected to create web sites that are stunning and user friendly. The sites should be professionally designed to reward the constituent with a spectacular visual display that is easily understood.
  • Data flaws prevalent – Some states omit important data elements. You cannot have transparency when specific dates on transactions are not included; financial numbers are rounded (not specific to the individual transaction); some transaction detail is missing; and, the data pool is shallow so citizens cannot discern performance trends over time. Importantly, the most reconciled data is not included in all reporting with no gaps.
  • Financial centricity – Virtually all ‘open checkbooks’ provide endless lists of numbers which are mind numbing. List of numbers without some analysis are almost useless, as is the lack of “context” to guide the viewer so one can make sense of the expense. For example, listing the cost of ‘bus fuel’ in a rural state, especially if no historical comparison is provided, does not answer whether the expenditure is “too high” or “too low” or about “just right.”
  • No performance measurement – No state site currently offers performance visualization, reporting on the results of what was invested in state programs or initiatives. Performance measurement goes outside of the state financials or its established IT networks. And publishing tools designed to be use internally to the Internet are not viable.

The encouraging news is that it is only a matter of time until entrepreneurial citizens address all of the challenges mentioned above.

We may, of course, want to blame those inside state IT for allowing these problems to go unresolved. But that would be a mistake. It is hard for state government IT professionals to exceed the expectations of constituents who are used to Apple & Microsoft’s brilliant software, and view hundreds of exceptional websites created by professionals everyday. State IT personnel are historically under financial and political constraints from elected leaders who have a myriad of priorities at any one moment and commit very limited resources to achieve the demanded results.

No, this is something the private sector should and must do because that is what citizens are expecting.

Open checkbook has provided the first rudimentary step toward financial transparency of tax dollars. But now, those in and outside of government who want to see real transparency must pass the baton to innovative technology companies who can deliver visually appealing and effective data visualizations in real-time. This will exceed the expectations of Americans desperate to see where and how money is being spent and what results are being achieved.

It is only a matter of time until this occurs.

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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