Tracking State Spending in Real Time with Budget Transparency Websites

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Oklahoma and Idaho are the latest states to launch budget transparency websites as a way to give residents access to real-time agency spending data.

State governments are raising the bar on what it means to be transparent about their spending, with two states launching new budget websites this month that allow citizens to examine expenditures in near-real time.

It’s no longer enough for state and local governments to keep ledgers of expenses and revenues, said R.J. Cross, a policy analyst who has authored a series of annual reports ranking state budget transparency efforts.  

“Being transparent now means being online and being usable,” said Cross, an analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund’s Follow the Money reports. “The way technology has changed has really enabled ways citizens can access and see state spending.”

This month, Idaho and Oklahoma both launched budget portal websites that aim to do just that.

Idaho’s website, Transparent Idaho, has been a work in progress since its initial launch in 2013. But the latest iteration offers citizens better access to state spending and revenue data through interactive reports, data filters, and expanded access vendor contracts and daily agency expenditures.  

“This effort is critical to our efforts to provide a clear vision of state spending for all Idahoans while providing the most value out of every taxpayer dollar,” said Idaho State Controller Brandon Woolf, who used $140,000 from his agency’s budget to fund the initiative.

Providing an example of the level of detail accessible on the new website, Woolf said he was able to search agency expenditures to find out how much state agencies spent on pizza this fiscal year (approximately $30,000) and which agency purchased the most pizza (the Department of Corrections). He could even discern which restaurant was the most popular.  

Budget transparency has come a long way since 2010, when the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund first began publishing reports on the issue and grading states' efforts, Cross said. Back then, only 36 states had websites that detailed how citizen tax dollars were spent. Today, every state has a budget transparency website, though their features and usability vary.

PIRG’s 2018 report found that states operating transparency websites “often realize significant financial returns on their investment.”

The report highlights one such example in Ohio, where vendors looking to do business with the state “have reported using OhioCheckbook.com as a business analytics tool” and allowed them to provide more competitive bids in order to win contracts and save the state money.

PIRG’s last report card, issued in 2018, gave Idaho a D and Oklahoma a D+.

Woolf said the low grade was not the catalyst for revamping the site, rather he wanted the site to be a better resource for residents.

The hope is the budget data will provide taxpayers better information about how their money is spent, and that government officials can use the data to make better spending decisions. Woolf said he’s had initial conversations with the Idaho governor’s office on how the data can be used to find efficiencies, for instance how contracts across several agencies could be consolidated to save money.

There’s great interest in these sites from residents, according to PIRG, which found that at least 1.5 million users viewed state transparency websites more than 8.7 million times in 2017.

Because Idaho’s new website launched this month, Woolf’s office doesn’t have data on the type of budget information that has been most in demand. But he’s heard from residents that state employee salaries and legislators' travel expenditures are among the most sought after information.

Idaho’s budget portal was launched through OpenGov, which provides cloud-based technology for government agencies. The company currently works with more than 2,000 state and local governments and is seeing more of a desire for integrated sites that provide a one-stop-shop for all state and local budget matters.

“States and local governments are more than ever wanting to collaborate on these types of projects,” said Josh Ellars, OpenGov’s head of product marketing and field enablement.

Oklahoma used the same technology to launch its Oklahoma Checkbook website this month. In an announcement of the website launch, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt said the new tool would enable citizens to “hold their agencies and elected officials accountable.”

The website similarly uses extensive spending and revenue datasets to make agency budgets searchable down to the individual transaction level—detail that state officials say could help them discover accounting errors or overpayments.

“The interactive website will provide Oklahomans with much-needed transparency and help the agency heads and elected officials, charged with keeping our financial house in order, make more efficient and effective decisions,” said David Ostrowe, Oklahoma’s secretary of digital transformation and administration.

Woolf said he sees great potential in Idaho’s new website and hopes cities and counties will sign on to the effort and link their budgets to the site as well, providing citizens with one-stop-shop for budgeting matters for all localities.  

“My vision for the future is this be a portal for the whole state and have counties, cities, and school districts included as well,” he said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty.

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