Connecting state and local government leaders
The Buckeye State has been pushing to make detailed information accessible online about state and local government spending.
PITTSBURGH — The state of Ohio has undertaken an ambitious program during the last two years to improve state and local government financial transparency, publishing easily searchable, checkbook-level information online about how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Although there have been obstacles along the way, public officials from Ohio say the program is growing and yielding benefits. Between 900 and 1,000 local government entities in the state have committed to participate in it, and over 500 have made information available online, according to Seth Metcalf, deputy treasurer and executive counsel in the state treasurer’s office. That’s in addition to spending information published through the system for state agencies.
Local government participants include not only villages, towns, cities and counties, but also school districts and special districts.
“Hanging your CAFR on your website doesn’t cut it,” Metcalf said at an event here Thursday, using the abbreviation for governments’ comprehensive annual financial reports.
“That is not financial transparency,” he added.
In April of this year, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund—a nonprofit that seeks to protect consumers and promote good government—ranked Ohio No. 1 among states in terms of providing internet access to government spending data.
That’s a big turnaround. In 2014, the group ranked the state No. 46.
The online financial transparency system Ohio now uses, OhioCheckbook.com, was launched in December 2014. It provides access to upwards of $552 billion of spending data from over the past eight years, according to state Treasurer Josh Mandel’s office.
As of Nov. 17, the website had seen around 662,000 total searches. Users can search using keywords and can view data in interactive charts.
With a few clicks, a person interested in road and highway construction spending could view information about individual transactions worth a total of about $1.9 billion. The information can be sorted by date, transaction size, or by the vendors and others that received the funds.
“Our hope is that it has improved citizen trust and it’s empowering citizens with facts,” said Metcalf. “A lot of times, when people don’t know what’s going on, they make things up.”
As a bonus, he said, the transparency program has generated positive media coverage, and it also enables local governments to compare their spending with that of their peers.
A key for getting local governments to post their financial data online using the state system, Metcalf added, was making the process to do so voluntary, inexpensive and easy.
The other panel members included Clarence E. Mingo, II, the auditor for Franklin County, which encompasses the city of Columbus, and Mayor Jeff Reser of Bucyrus, Ohio. Franklin County and Bucyrus are two of the local jurisdictions participating in the transparency program.
Mingo described how pushback can arise internally when a government moves to open up detailed financial information. “Government is not always interested in change,” he said.
Some of the concerns he heard: political opponents would sift through the data looking for expenditures that could be used to attack elected officials; members of the public would misinterpret the information; or the media might identify spending that looks questionable.
Mingo said all of this was fine with him. “I would rather be abused with truth about my expenditures,” he said. As for news reporters unearthing information about unusual spending he added: “Those things should be exposed, they should be talked about.”
“There is absolutely nothing going on with the finances in Franklin County,” Mingo said, “that the public, media, political opponents, or anyone in any category, cannot easily discern.”
In addition to improving transparency, Reser views Bucyrus’ embrace of the “open checkbook” platform as a way to help lure new candidates into running for public office in the city. Some positions, he noted, have failed to attract candidates in recent years.
He explained that managing the city’s finances can be one of the more intimidating aspects of holding an elected position there. Bucyrus has a roughly $7 million general fund, according to the mayor.
“Our budgeting,” he said, “basically has been done about 30 years the same way.”
The new online data system, he believes, offers a way for newcomers to develop an understanding of city spending.
“We want the young people,” Reser said, “to step up and have these tools.”
OhioCheckbook.com relies on technology from OpenGov. Headquartered in Redwood City, California, the firm provides cloud-based systems for government finance and budgeting.
Metcalf noted that many people in the U.S. have grown accustomed to finding the information they want quickly online using Google.
“Technology has made that possible,” he said. “They’re expecting the same from government.”
Bill Lucia is a reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.