Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Following the Money 2012

How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending promotes fiscal responsibility, checks corruption, and bolsters public confidence.

In the past few years, state governments across the country have made their checkbooks transparent by creating online transparency portals. These government- operated websites allow visitors to view the government’s checkbook—who receives state money, how much, and for what purposes. Most of these websites are also searchable, making it easier for residents to follow the money and monitor government spending of many sorts. Today almost every state operates a transparency website with the state’s checkbook accessible to the public.

Over the past two years, the number of states that give citizens access to their state’s checkbook has increased from 32 to 46.

This report is the Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s third annual ranking of states’ progress toward “Transparency 2.0”—a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. The past year has seen continued progress, with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to spending information and engagement with government.

In 2011, eight states created new transparency websites and several others made significant improvements to sites already launched.

In order to assess states’ progress toward the standards of Transparency 2.0, each state’s transparency website was analyzed and assigned a grade from zero to 100, based on 13 scoring criteria measuring searchability and the breadth of information provided. Assigning these numbers to more familiar “A” to “F” grades makes it possible to describe five types of states.

Leading states, such as Arizona, received a grade in the “A” range. Seven states have established user-friendly transparency portals that contain comprehensive information on government expenditures. Citizens and watchdog groups can use the sites to monitor government spending quickly and easily. Among the most distinctive features of Leading states’ transparency websites is the ability to compare state expenditures over time.

Government spending transparency is not a partisan cause. As was the case at the outset of 2010 and 2011, Democratic and Republican-leaning states perform equally well when it comes to transparency this year. The average score for a Democratic leaning state (determined by political party of the current governor) was 70.2, while that of a Republican-leaning state was 68.9, a difference of less than two points. Among the seven states that scored an “A” or “A-” , 3 have Democratic governors and four have Republican governors. Among the five states that received an F, two have Democratic governors and three have Republican governors.

Some states have gone above and beyond standard Transparency 2.0 features. They have developed new tools and posted new sets of information on government expenditures, giving residents the unprecedented ability to monitor and influence how their government allocates resources.

All states, including Leading states, have many opportunities to improve their transparency websites.

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