States Provide Example of Government Transparency

The federal government will have 50 good examples of how to make its information more transparent, as it tries to meet requirements of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, or DATA Act, which was passed by the U.S. Senate April 10.

Every state maintains a website that has at least “checkbook level” transparency for government spending as of last year. A recent report published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group analyzed and graded each states’ online spending transparency efforts based on the content of the website and the website’s ease of use. Each state received a grade for its efforts, as well as feedback to encourage states to continue improving their websites. The report also highlights some of the successes states have experienced since they began publishing spending information. A few examples of state successes:

  • Texas saved $33 million over three years by renegotiating a copier machine contract;
  • Utah’s state government reduced spending on bottled water from $294,000 to $85,000 after releasing spending information. After identifying this excess spending, the state reduced bottled water expenditures to $85,000;
  • Massachusetts’ website has saved the state an estimated $3 million by eliminating paper, postage and printing costs associated with information requests; and
  • Florida reported saving $3.2 million between October 2012 and June 2013 by renegotiating contracts.

The states’ successful implementation of online information transparency may soon become a useful guide for the federal government. The DATA Act, sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, would require spending information to be published into standardized, searchable data that can be accessed by the general public.

 Federal spending data is not always available to the public and, if it is, the formatting prevents the data from being easily compared. Requiring this information to be released to the public in an easy-to-use, searchable format greatly increases government spending transparency and allows for watchdogs and citizens alike to hold government accountable for fraud and waste of taxpayers’ dollars, successes that already have occurred on the state level websites.

The tangible benefits experienced by state governments with comprehensive transparency websites is not the only reason the federal government should look to the states as an example for transparency. Under the bill, the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget would have joint control over the implementation of the plan. A major part of the implementation would include publishing all appropriations spending on the USASpending.gov website, which will be the primary platform for viewing and comparing spending data.

If the DATA Act is signed into law, the Department of Treasury and OMB can look to the states as examples of how to manage online spending data. State transparency websites can be a beneficial resource for structuring federal level websites. Federal website designers can sample the states’ various systems and decide which formats and search tools are the most user-friendly and use this information to design a fully comprehensive way to publish spending information online. For example, Indiana, which achieved the highest grade for spending transparency, allows website visitors to create specified searches that filter data and can then download the data to use for offline analysis. Hawaii’s website, which also received a high grade, provides data in charts, graphs, reports and tables to allow for easier analysis. These innovative features can be used to create a fully interactive and easy to navigate spending transparency website.

The DATA Act is expected to reach the House floor later this month.