President Obama’s demands for transparency and accountability are echoing in the halls of state and local governments, where elected officials and bureaucrats are scrambling to provide spending data to the federal website Recovery.gov.
The process is daunting on a number of levels, reports Governing (May 2009): “When spending stats begin hitting the Internet, [local officials] can expect more scrutiny of their decisions than they’ve ever experienced before. But that may be the least of their worries. Simply complying with what the stimulus law requires on transparency and shaking meaningful data out of their computer systems will be challenging enough. . . . They’re being asked to spend the stimulus funds at a furious pace, but also to account for every dollar according to federal rules that were still being written late into April.”
A few states are already rising to the challenge. Both Texas and Missouri implemented online models and found the fiscal tracking to be a boon. On the Texas site (http://window.state.tx.us/comptrol/checkup/), according to Governing, “information is updated daily and drills down so far that citizens can find out how much agencies spend on pencils, if they want to know. . . . Anyone can search the site to see what checks were cut to which vendors doing business with the state.”
After noticing certain inefficiencies, one Texas agency consolidated same-item purchases from multiple vendors; another canceled plans for unused pagers. In sum, the Longhorn State claims to have put $8.7 million to better use.
The Missouri Accountability Portal (mapyourtaxes.mo.gov) features data stretching back to 2000, including the salary of each state employee, as well as business tax credits.
In all of these scenarios, decision makers did more than simply crunch data. They put the data in context. “Numbers with dollar signs next to them have a way of inspiring people to ask questions,” Governing concludes. “What large numbers standing alone don’t do is provide answers.”
Such was the case with an investigation into $15,482.57 of purchases at a Missouri bra shop. Far from being the scandal it may have seemed, the purchase outfitted the state’s female prison inmates.