10 ways to improve spending transparency

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Despite improvements in public spending transparency, states still need to make progress in making their data accessible, according to a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Although many state governments have improved access to public spending information, a number of them have not taken appropriate measures to provide constituents with such information, according to a recent report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

“Government spending transparency websites give citizens and government officials the ability to monitor many aspects of state spending — saving money, preventing corruption, reducing potential waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars,” according to the report, "Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data."

In its review, the U.S. PIRG Education Fund assigned each of the 50 states an A-F grade based on its website’s searchability and range of information available. While many states continue to improve, the states with the best grades are those that provide access to types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny.

Based on its analysis, the report provided a number of best practices to help improve public spending transparency:

Provide incentives for city spending transparency – Some states developed online checkbooks (applications that show details on payments) with the intention of incorporating spending data from municipal governments. However, those cities have not always been timely in sharing their data with the state’s website. Massachusetts has awarded $300,000 in Community Innovative Challenge grants to help cities post their information online.

Audit the checkbook – By verifying that checkbook-level spending data is correct, taxpayers can be confident in the information reported by their state. South Dakota audits its checkbook every year, unlike other states that post disclaimers that the data should be verified with a purchasing agency.

Post expenditures not included in checkbook – Some data is not included in the checkbook because of privacy restrictions. Nearly half (23) of the states do not provide notice as to the type of payments excluded from the checkbook.

Post the value of expenditures not included in checkbook – While some states list the type of payments excluded from the checkbook, Tennessee lists the type and value of the payments by program.

Include checkbook-level spending from all quasi-public agencies – The report found at least one agency from each state that did not release its spending data at the checkbook level. Releasing this information would enable users to monitor spending of agencies that do not receive appropriations from legislatures.

Improve searchability – Searchable websites make for more accessible data. Four states have only limited search functions, while another three, California, Alaska and Ohio, cannot be searched at all.

 Provide checkbook-level information for recipients of subsidy programs - Only six states provide taxpayers with checkbook information on recipients of their most important subsidy programs. Disclosing all programs would increase accountability and transparency.

Include recipient-specific details on benefits of economic development subsidies - Nearly one-third (15) of state governments do not provide recipient-specific details on the projected or actual benefits of economic development subsidies. As a result, watchdog groups and citizens cannot verify whether the subsidies are giving them an adequate return on investment.

Allow download of the entire checkbook data set – 17 states do not provide the option of downloading the entire checkbook data set. Doing so allows for offline analysis.

Provide tax expenditure reports – Six states do not provide tax expenditure reports, which detail a state’s tax credits, deductions and exemptions with the resulting revenue loss from each program.

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