How Massachusetts Is Improving Fiscal Transparency and Procurement in the Process

Massachusetts State House

Massachusetts State House


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The state comptroller’s new spending and transparency platform, CTHRU, provides transaction-level detail into a $60 billion annual budget, as part of a subscription ensuring that insight will only get better with time.

The Massachusetts Comptroller’s Office launches its new spending and transparency platform, CTHRU, Sept. 14, a cloud-based “open data dive” into $60 billion’s worth of state agency finances a year dating back to 2010.

Many such agencies are currently overburdened with expenditure and payroll data requests.

Seattle-based software company Socrata’s subscription service, coupled with lean system design, allowed the comptroller to take the platform live in less than seven months at a cost between $175,000 and $225,000 a year, over the next three years.

“The greatest factor here is making sure a culture of change is available to those in a decision-making capacity like me; a lot of my colleagues are not independently and apolitically appointed to serve coterminously with the governor,” Comptroller Thomas Shack told Route Fifty in an interview. “I work solely for the people of Massachusetts—its citizenry, its taxpayers—and that independence gives me great freedom to engage in this type of endeavor, unlike similar fiscal administrator positions.”

(Massachusetts Comptroller's Office)

CTHRU replaces the Massachusetts Open Checkbook, a million-dollar system that didn’t launch until 2010, even though the 2003-era technology was procured in 2005. As a result, there were already legacy qualities associated with that platform when it went live, and it hasn’t been updated since.

Open Checkbook also lacked accessibility for people with certain disabilities and visitors using Internet Explorer, due to an incompatible IE 11 upgrade that caused issues for months.

By comparison, CTHRU represents the most updated transparency a government can have, Shack said, and it’s graphically intuitive, visually appealing and constantly being improved.

“The data set available on Open Checkbook is like comparing the Wright brothers’ plane to the space shuttle, when compared to the data depth have with CTHRU,” he said.

Budget data is expressed by fiscal year and payroll data by calendar year, but both can be drilled into down to the transaction level—the platform provides a breadcrumb chain on the side of the page showing how a user got to where they are. Dates payments were made, the contracts used, payment IDs and the processing department are all listed to aid public access, as well as government accounting.

The comptroller will also use Socrata’s forthcoming contracts product when it becomes available.

Bureaucracy has been all but eliminated from the process of obtaining such records in multiple, downloadable forms. And going as far back as 2010 provides historical reference.

Schools of higher learning have already expressed interest in running analytics on the data, Shack said.

“I don’t know what’s going to come out of that, but I’m excited by what the public might find,” he said. “A lot of information can be gleaned from what we’re providing.”

An added benefit of going with a software-as-a-service solution is it doesn’t require customization and allows government to get away from its traditional, one-size-fits-all procurement model, Shack added.

The Comptroller’s Office chooses what data and how much is uploaded into the system and which points are visible to the public. Statutorily exempt information on things like domestic violence and police informants wasn’t allowed in Open Checkbook, said Deputy Comptroller and Chief Information Officer Chris Guido, and will also be excluded from CTHRU.

Color schemes aid the visually impaired, and the software is competitive with the private industry standard, Shack said.

His office is providing CTHRU demonstrations on how to get at granular data and create visual datasets for public think tanks, data mining outfits and the press up until launch. If more guidance is needed on raw data sheets, the comptroller’s help desk may put out an instructional video or share Socrata’s.

“It’s intuitive; you just pick it up and go,” Guido said. “We don’t think it requires that much education.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington D.C.

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