Spending Data: Boring Or A Bureaucracy No-Brainer?

Why government transparency? We talk a lot about transparency, but what do citizens really want to know about all of the extraneous government information they’ve got floating around? The most obvious answer is that people want to know that the hard-earned money they fork over each year on taxes is put to good use. Like when you give to charity, you want assurance that your money is being spent wisely and honestly, and not being wasted or getting lost in bureaucracy and corruption.

State governments are required to publicize their spending data online to assure taxpayers that their dollars aren’t effectively being thrown down the drain. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group recently released a scorecard rating state governments on how they provide online access to their spending data. Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, spoke with Christopher Dorobek for the podcast DorobekINSIDER on the findings of the report and its implications for national fiscal transparency.

But first of all, why is this such important information for the general public to have at its disposal? According to Baxandall, citizens should be able to understand how and where the government is putting their tax dollars. “Fundamentally we believe that taxpayers should be able to look at government spending the way they would look at their own checkbook… That’s important for having some confidence on where your tax dollars are going, in terms of being able to expose potential waste or abuse and for finding ways to do procurement more efficiently,” said Baxandall.

Generally, the report has found good results in terms of efforts to publish state spending data on online platforms. All fifty states have set up websites that in some way track government spending contracts, and almost all states provide information on at least some of their subsidy programs. According to Baxandall, “This is a story of government doing something better over time.”

However, some states, such as Ohio, are further along in their improvement than others. Certain states identified by the report are very advanced in having developed websites that are as high tech as commercially designed enterprises’ websites, with very smooth scrolling, data pop outs, search engines, and Google analytics. Some states’ websites are trying to keep up with the private sector, and are doing a pretty good job at it.

What were the factors that made Ohio a success story, and what sets up a state for failure? One factor is not having a fractured bureaucratic system, where all state agencies operate very distinctly and without much collaboration. “A state like California, which in some ways has wonderful high tech capabilities and lots of resources, just has a really bureaucratic fragmentation between the different jurisdictions that have this data. They don’t share it together; it’s not a one stop shopping kind of approach,” said Baxandall.

Also, leadership buy in is key. Although it can be hard to come by, when the people with power believe that it’s important, huge changes and improvements can be made.

You may be asking yourself, does anyone actually use these websites, though? But actually, according to Baxandall, when the websites function well, they get a lot of traffic. Ohio, for instance, experienced over 130,000 searches in the first couple of months.

So clearly, publishing state government spending data is no unimportant task. It takes a bit of time, resources, and support for states to develop their websites, but it’ll have far-reaching consequences for government transparency and citizen engagement.

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