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Transparency Ratings Should be Free of Organizational Agendas

The Center for Public Integrity’s state corruption index has hit the news again this past week, giving most states terrible grades on transparency and accountability and suggesting that our states governments are corrupt. The study, completed in 2011, was put together by journalists in state capitals choosing 330 questions and was peer reviewed by many more journalists interested in the myriad of topics among the 16,500 corruption indicators complied during the course of the study. Nearly 100 state level organizations (not revealed in the study so we are not able to determine their own interests) were also solicited to seek their opinion on the question, “what areas mattered most in their state when it came to the risk of significant corruption occurring in the public sector?”

The conclusion of the exhaustive survey resulted in an unprecedented indictment of state government:

“The bottom line? Not a single state earned an A grade in the year-long investigation. Half the states earned D’s or F’s.”

Can it be that bad?

It turns out that this survey reflects many of the interests of journalists looking for the next Pulitzer Prize and less about the reality of what is happening in states with respect to real transparency and accountability. You can view the entire study at: http://www.stateintegrity.org.

Consider these four states ranked high in the Center’s study:

New Jersey – ranked #1

California – ranked #4

Iowa – ranked #7

Illinois – ranked #11

Research I have seen shows that California has no transparency site (Governor Brown took it down), Iowa currently has no “open checkbook” to allow citizens to see state government expenses, and Illinois (which is spiraling into bankruptcy) has 39 states behind it with worse rankings? It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

To better understand how the results were calibrated, I looked at the questions being asked. I would encourage you to read about the methodology of the survey and the findings. You can find that methodology at: http://www.stateintegrity.org/methodology.

As you know, this series of blog postings focuses on state financial transparency so here is some of the questions asked and on which states are graded which relate to that subject:

  • Can citizens access the state budgetary process?
  • In practice, the state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner in the debating stage (i.e. before final approval).
  • In practice, citizens provide input at budget hearings.
  • In practice, citizens can access itemized budget allocations.
  • In law, is there a separate legislative committee which provides oversight of public funds.
  • Does the state executive publish a pre-budget statement, which presents the assumptions used in developing the budget such as the expected revenue, expenditure, debt-levels, and broad allocations among sectors?
  • Does the state executive publish its budget proposal, which presents the state government’s detailed declaration of policies and priorities for the upcoming budget year?
  • Does the state legislature publish an enacted budget document that authorizes the executive to implement the policy measures outlined in the budget?
  • Does the state executive publish monthly or quarterly in-year reports on revenues collected, expenditures made, and debt incurred?
  • Does the state executive publish a mid-year review for the first six months of the budget year to discuss any changes in economic assumptions that would affect approved budget policies?
  • Does the state executive issue a year-end report summarizing the financial situation at the end of the fiscal year?
  • Does the state publish a citizens budget containing non-technical budget information that is accessible to a broader audience?

Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the questions are good and the public deserves to know because it is their money. But an exhaustive list of multiple subjects across multiple categories can serve a disservice to true transparency and accountability.

Sure, citizens can go to budget hearings. And, of course, legislatures have oversight of public funds. But the comprehensive survey misses two fundamental two questions to ensure real transparency and accountability:

Can citizens see all detailed state expenditures in real-time and measure them against the approved budget, and,

Can citizens see the results of tax dollar investment with analytics of how state programs or initiatives are actually working?

Nowhere in the survey do the journalists ask about program effectiveness and efficiency. Nowhere in the investigation is there any focus on whether state programs are achieving their goals or mission. Instead, the journalists place higher emphasis on subjects like the personal finances of state elected officials or who contributed to their campaign.

Interestingly, if we had real-time financial transparency and metrics to measure state program or initiative effectiveness, many of these other secondary issues (personal lobbying relationships, campaign contributions, elected official personal finances, and other traditional “government reform” issues) would be less relevant because every citizen could focus on where tax money is being spent and what results are being achieved – in real-time.

Currently, not a single state measures spending against approved budget numbers in a fully transparent method. Only a couple of states have analytics in place to measure performance of their programs and initiatives.

Good news: This study moves us in the direction of transparency and accountability.

Bad news: It emphasizes the self-interest of journalists looking to write stories on state government.

The two-bolded questions above need to come before the other 16,500 indicators complied during the survey. It would give us a better and more real measure of integrity, transparency and accountability.

And the focus on two questions would have a greater impact on achieving genuine and meaningful positive change for our citizens.

Further, having real-time details would be easier for our citizens to know who is corrupt and who isn’t. Let’s hope the State Integrity Investigation 2.0 gets it right the next time it is in the news. Asking the few right questions really isn’t that hard.

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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