Tag Archives: U.S. PIRG

Pope knows public transit – Go-To Pass to environmental imperative

Though it’s not clear if Pope Francis has to stand at the bus stop and wait for the #25 bus, it is evident that the pontiff is familiar with the challenges of riding – not to mention managing – public transit. He even brought it up in his recent encyclical (http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html in which he urged cities to give priority to public transportation. He wasn’t just thinking of the overarching challenge of saving the environment but actually addressed the need to relieve the “undignified conditions” endured by public transit-dependent riders.

Only a veteran bus rider could speak to the reality of those “undignified conditions.”   It is legendary now that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a straphanger when he lived and worked in Buenos Aires.   In fact, when Pope Francis was elected to the papacy, the Rome transportation agency, ATAC, issued him a lifetime “pope pass”, appropriately packaged in a tasteful white leather pouch. ATAC also heralded his election by issuing 200,000 transit tickets bearing the Vatican coat of arms rather than the usual corporate logo.

There is even an unofficial Facebook page called “Riding the Bus with Pope Francis” that follows the words and walks of the Pope with a focus on his acts of humility and commitment to social justice.

Most important, Pope Francis gave specific attention to public transit as a priority in his encyclical on global warming in which he observed that “many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.” More specifically, he wrote that “the quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas, which spoil the urban landscape.”

The pontiff’s words rang true for John Olivieri, the Transportation National Campaign Director for U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) who wrote that “the Pope’s decision to elevate the importance of public transportation and the need to limit the growth of driving comes not a second too soon. A 21st century transportation system that reduces carbon emissions and urban sprawl is something we all should work for.”

Welcome aboard, Pope Francis!

 

 

 

Minnesota Gets a C+ on Transparency Tracking Tools

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.