Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Transparency 2.0

Using The Internet For Budget Transparency To Increase Accountability, Efficiency And Taxpayer Confidence
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

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

In the private sector, Internet search technology has revolutionized the accessibility and transparency of information. We take for granted the ability to track deliveries online, to check cell phone minutes and compare real estate on the Web, even to summon – at the click of a mouse – satellite and street-level views of any address. But until recently, when it came to tracking government expenditures online, we were left in the dark.

State governments across the country are changing that. A growing number of states are using powerful Internet search technology to make budget transparency more accessible than ever before. Legislation and executive orders around the country are lifting the electronic veil on where tax dollars go. More than 20 states currently mandate that citizens be able to access a searchable online database of government expenditures. These states have come to define “Transparency 2.0” – a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. Many of these web portals are already up and running.

Arizona has made the commitment to such transparency, though the online budget portal is not required to become operational until January 2011. The law to create this transparency system was passed by strong super-majorities in both houses of the legislature and received the signature of the Governor. Given the problems Arizona has with its budget, it is important that the state move swiftly to implement this law as quickly as possible and that it include the strongest best practices.

The Arizona PIRG Education Fund reviewed how current Arizona policy compares to best practices among Transparency 2.0 states that have upgraded their budget transparency systems. This report makes the case that Arizona must seize the opportunity to become a leader of the nationwide movement of state governments enhancing budget transparency in order to increase efficiency, accountability, and public trust. The report documents the accelerating trend toward budget Transparency 2.0 and examines the benefits of improved transparency, highlighting best practices and offering suggestions for how Arizona can become a leader and do so before 2011.
Best practices have been developed by Transparency 2.0 States:

Comprehensive – Leading states provide more comprehensive information on a broader range of expenditures, including:

  • Minimal thresholds or delays – Disclose all expenditures big and small, direct and indirect, with information updated frequently.
  • Local jurisdictions and authorities – Disclose spending by all government agencies and entities, including independent authorities and, increasingly, localities.
  • Contracts – Disclose detailed information for each government contract, tracking the purpose and performance as well as spending on subcontractors.
  • Subsidies – Disclose detailed information, including the purpose and outcome of each subsidy. Compile a unified economic development budget to coordinate information about disparate programs. Link disclosure to automatic mechanisms to recapture subsidies if recipients don’t deliver on their promises.

One-Stop – Leading states offer one central website where citizens can search all government expenditures. In many Transparency 1.0 states, a patchwork of disclosure laws provides information about government expenditures – if citizens already know whereto look. But citizens must access numerous websites, go to several agency offices, read through dense reports, make formal information requests, and figure out complex bureaucratic structures to ascertain what is and isn’t included. Transparency 2.0 states, by contrast, disclose all information about government expenditures on a single website, including comprehensive information about government contracts and subsidies.

One-Click Searchable – Commercial Internet vendors know that a few extra clicks make it far less likely that users will get to their destination. Leading states allow citizens both to browse broad, common-sense categories of government spending and to make directed keyword and field searches.

 

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