Today, various levels of government are more open with their finances than ever before. According to research, 72 percent of states have implemented Open Checkbook infrastructure, 16 percent have an alternative reporting method and 16 percent have no online checkbook. Open Checkbook is the first pass at modern financial transparency but it is not the last. We have seen a number of organizations emerge, but no single solution for government transparency and accountability has emerged to date.
Many states are working hard to be fully transparent. Ohio, in particular, led by State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has opened up its government. Mandel has made it possible for Ohio residents and stakeholders see where their tax dollars are being spent. But questions remain about whether his focus on fiscal transparency will remain once his term as State Treasurer ends. Ohio does not have a law to make transparency permanent.
California has made financial transparency difficult for its residents. One barrier raised by current Governor Jerry Brown is to eliminate the state transparency website and make any transparency reported by departments, agencies, initiatives or programs virtually impossible to find. This was done by Executive Order B-12-11, in which he both declared his support for transparency and announced that he would be closing the state’s consolidated transparency website. It is now much harder, if not nearly impossible, to find anything. All of this difficulty was explained away as cost savings. But, of course, we know that this explanation rings hollow.
Other states provide incomplete information and confuse their state constituents. A number of states list broad numbers to give viewers an overview of spending. But that doesn’t tell you very much. Plus, it is easy to “hide” items in budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are a number of examples of incomplete “Open Checkbook” features on state websites. Citizens should not have to sift through hundreds of thousands of transactions that lack context or have no explanation beyond the cost spent.
We now have the digital technology and IT “smarts” to produce easy-to-understand government spending explanations. Constituents should be able to see the entire process as a check to ensure both spending effectiveness and efficiency. With all the partisan politics, it may be the only way to keep the country united and reduce the cynicism toward government.
So what steps do we need to take?
Step 1: Accept the emergence of financial transparency and embrace it.
Transparency is the future. We can look all around us. The Internet allows the average person almost unlimited data and information to consider and will only accelerate our ability to gain access. Elected officials and government employees who attempt to hide or limit financial viewing do so at their own peril. Coalitions at all levels of government are beginning to push for greater sunshine. Saying no puts government officials in jeopardy.
Step 2: View financial transparency from the viewpoint of the user.
The first stage of delivering data is just to release it; lots of it. But data alone doesn’t tell us what it is used for, how it was used or what were the outcomes. State IT professionals need premier focus on citizen users and their needs. Then, sophisticated government employees can build on the simple explanations that citizens will believe and trust. Currently, not one state in their financial transparency model matches revenue to expenses by month, thereby allowing citizens to see the monthly cash flow of government. Why? Because it could help states know well in advance their financial needs and account for changes in future years. Now, states must either cut spending or raise taxes, or both. It is a clumsy and costly process. No private sector business could ever survive without knowing monthly cash flow.
Sept 3: Publicly share best practices to build further transparency enthusiasm and results.
Better practices encourage even more better practices. We still have a long way to go until we get to the moment in time when citizens see immediate financial actions by their government. Until then, innovative public sector employees should offer strategies and practices that advance transparency. Working together, we can all have a government that is more effective and more efficient. It parallels “knowledge sharing” in the private sector. It will allow the purpose-driven millennial generation to get passionate about government making a true empirical difference in the lives of many.
Step 4: Always keep one question central to the process – should government be fully accountable to the constituents or stakeholders who pay the bills for government programs and initiatives?
Everyday people work hard to make ends meet and pay a portion of those wages to their government for vital products and services. They cannot and should not be taken for granted, as they are ultimately the sources of government resources.
Will it be hard? Yes. Will it mean change in current practices and procedures? Of course.
Will it ensure a government that works better, achieves more, and can do it at a lower cost? Very likely. Will people get more engaged and trust their government more? Absolutely.
David Rehr is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.