For the past four year the US Public Interest Group has graded each of the 50 states on their level of transparency. While 7 states made the honor roll, six states received failing grades. How did your state do?
Phineas Baxandall is a senior analyst for tax and budget at the US Public Interest Group. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that they do the report every year because they think it is important for people to know how their government spends it’s money.
“Transparency can’t be the icing we put on in the end, it has to be at the heart and soul of everything we do,” said Baxandall.
“Transparency helps connect people to what their elected official and their government is doing. It also helps people how the government accountable when it can do better,” said Baxandall.
Do Citizens Really Care About Transparency?
“There is a core group of people who have used transparency portals the most (journalists, watchdog groups). But it is kind of like voting, the ability to have access to this information is as important as how many people are exercising their right to vote. Only a minority of people exercise their right to vote but if you took away that right people would be rightly incensed. Transparency is a similar thing,” said Baxandall.
Tracking the Dollar
“On the one hand budget times are tough and so every dollar that gets spent badly is another dollar that will be an extra tax dollar or cut from some program. The tradeoffs are tangible in a way that they weren’t necessarily so just a few years ago. Add that to the ability of technology to put information at our fingertips. We expect that we can dial up at any moment the amount of minutes we’ve used on our cell phones, track a package across the country or pull up a property value on a house you are walking by on the street. Citizens should have the same access to information about how their tax dollars are being spent,” said Baxandal.
“The main story here is that states and cities are really progressing by leaps and bounds. There’s always a struggle about how the public takes data that isn’t sensational to see the stories jump out at you, but some place are making it easier to zero in on the information. For example NYC has a tool where at any moment you can see the five projects that are most over budget,” said Baxandal. “It has gotten better in that every state that got a B this year probably would have gotten an A four years ago. The standards are really increasing.”
“I wouldn’t characterize any of these states as bad guys. Nobody is trying to obscure information. This is the first year that every state besides California and New Mexico had some sort of searchable checkbook level data. You can go in and see individual transactions,” said Baxandal.
The Case of California
“California is an interesting case because they use to have a decent transparency system, but they pulled the plug on it a couple of years ago. They had trouble sorting out who was the responsible agency and how to integrate it. In the meantime they were building this huge, expensive system called FI$Cal. Fi$Cal is going to be a kind of a backbone to their tech system, so they are sitting and waiting until that is built and then layer transparency system on top of it,” said Baxandall.
Does Size Matter?
“The average score of a big state tends to be better than the smaller states. If you are a large state it is a little easier to make the investment in technology to create one of these systems,” said Baxandall.
Politics Don’t Matter
“No matter how we cut the data we can not find a partisan lean,” said Baxandall.
How Does Austerity Factor In?
“Tight budgets are actually a spur towards greater transparency in that public officials want to show that they are taking these tradeoffs seriously. They want to show the money is accounted for. One of the things we asked states was how much does this really cost them and we continue to be surprised how little it costs,” said Baxandall.
5 Years In
“Five years ago this was a novel thing and it was a question of whether you were going to do this or not. Now is is a question of depth and the type of platform you should use. It is a whole different ballgame. You can’t measure or manage what you can’t see and with transparency it is easy to see in a very literal way.
*All images are from the US PIRG report.
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