As the Legislature tackles the issues of state – the economy, education, health, the environment, transportation and more — open government advocates know that the issue of transparency is the subtle common weave and warp of the process itself. Though transparency remains an implicit element that seldom steps into the spotlight, a modest “C+” grade in transparency may capture the attention of Minnesota voters accustomed to being Way Above Average.
That not-much-above grade was conferred by Minnesota by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund in its 2012 report entitled Following the Money 2012: How the 50 states rate in providing online access to government spending data. It’s important to underscore that the findings focus only on spending and only on online access to data.
The study is the prequel to the more recent US PIRG study of online access to city government spending. It applies similar criteria and a parallel process to rate the fifty states.
The good news is that the states in general have made progress. The 2012 study is the third annual ranking of states’ progress towards Transparency 2.0, a recognized standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. Minnesota is listed as one of fourteen states categorized as “emerging.”
In one way, this study itself is encouraging; as the researchers note, the life history of opening the government checkbook is relatively short. In 2006 Congress passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act which instructed the OMB to shine a light on federal spending by creating a single searchable website of federal awards. Soon thereafter the states began opening their online checkbooks to the public. Rising to the increased level of expectation the move towards openness has progressed apace.
As with the more recent study of city government, this analysis of state government, conducted by the U.S. PIRG looked at these features:
- Comprehensiveness – contracts with private companies, subsidies, quasi-public agencies, leases and concessions to private companies
- One-Stop – a single website where residents can search all government expenditures
- One-click searchable and downloadable
The study cites several examples of ways in which Transparency 2.0 websites save dollars by reducing the number of costly information requests from residents, watchdog groups, government bodies and companies and the media.
Further, the report affirms that implementation of Transparency 2.0 costs less than one might expect. Some states have set aside funds for re-tooling, while others have integrated new policies and procedures with existing funds. Minnesota changes have been paid for out of existing funds. The SWIFT (Statewide Integrated Financial Tools) project currently being implemented by the State of Minnesota is one ongoing effort to achieve Transparency Standard 2.0.
For those who care about where Minnesota is on the curve the news is neutral – we’re right in the dead middle. Fourteen states got “C” grades with scores ranging from 79 (Georgia) to 66 (North Dakota). Minnesota comes in at a grade of 78 along with Alabama, New Jersey and Oklahoma. It is interesting to note that the size of the state budget does not determine the level of transparency.
The transparency super-stars have done extra-credit work, of course. Some states provide detailed performance evaluation of agencies and contractors; other offer mapping tools where the public can see how specific areas of the state benefit from government spending Information provided by some states is more comprehensive and some states provide extensive integration with local government, a process strongly endorsed by the researchers, and further explored in the more recent study of city government fiscal transparency.