In this age of DIY informed citizenship governing agencies at every level have accelerated demand, and cost-effective tools, to assure that the proverbial man or woman on the street can be an independent searcher of truth in government. At the federal level, advocacy groups, e.g. the National Security Archive, the Center for Effective Government, Open the Government, the Sunlight Foundation, Public Integrity and a host of others have probed the intricacies of the bureaucracies. Because practices of state governments vary greatly, advocacy groups differ markedly by state, with many states having more than one watchdog group keeping an eye on the laws, regulations and their implementation.
What is new in the transparency arena is a groundbreaking report on current practice at the city level.
In January 2013 the U.S. Pubic Interest Research Group Education Fund issued a hefty report on the degree to which residents have access to information about the use of taxpayer funds in thirty of the nation’s largest cities, including the City of Lakes. Bearing the provocative title Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities, the study offers a wake-up call to voters in the city of Minneapolis, a metropolis inclined to rate itself as “way above average.” On the rating score of 1 to 100, Minneapolis rated a 54, which researchers translate to a “D-.” (That’s D-minus”)
Disclaimers first: it is important to note that the study pertains to transparency in government expenditures only, not to the range of government operations and services. Second, the focus of this study is not on cities’ transactions with other governments. Instead, the study focuses on city government interactions with non-government entities, e.g. contracting, subsidies, financing and service requests.
Third, researchers looked only at online access as a measure of transparency.
The operating principle guiding the researchers is that government at every level should work to achieve a standard of “Transparency 2.0”, a standard briefly defined as “encompassing, one-stop, and one-click.”
Based on that Transparency 2.0 Standard the researchers employ twelve scoring criteria to measure availability, accessibility and searchability. The 2.0 Standards were formulated by U.S. PIRG Education Fund analysts and researchers based on conversations with city and state officials, U.S PIRG’s past work on government online transparency and accountability, and an inventory of current city transparency features across the country. They are defined this way:
- Encompassing: A user-friendly web portal provides residents the ability to search detailed information about government contracts, spending, subsidies and tax expenditures for all government entities. Tools also allow residents to track online how well public officials respond to requests about quality-of-life services. For example, cities that follow Transparency 2.0 standards for contracts, grants, subcontracts and discretionary spending with nonprofit or private vendors would: Open their checkbooks to the public, allowing residents to view the value of payments made by city government to specific vendors; Disclose details on the goods or services provided or a copy of the contract for each payment; Extend this disclosure to every cit office, as opposed to a side project for a few departments; Disclose all spending, without a minimum or maximum threshold for the amount spent on the good or services; Disclose contracts and expenditures from previous years, along residents and officials to track patterns in awarding contracts and to measure current contracts against benchmarks; Disclose timely information…. Disclose all bids for each contract rather than just the winning bid …Disclose spending information at the city’s quasi-public agencies, such as water, transit or housing authorities. …
- One-Stop: Residents can search all government expenditures on a single website.
- One-click Searchable and Downloadable: Residents can search data with a single query or browse common sense categories. Residents can sort data on government spending by recipient, amount, granting agency, purpose or keyword. Residents can also download data and conduct detailed off-line analyses.
Thus measured, Minneapolis is one of eight of the thirty cities that falls (literally) into the “lagging cities “ – D- range. ‘Laggers,’ as described in the study, “provide residents with basic spending documents, such as the budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAER) – a document that reports on the city’s actual spending and financial solvency.” While lagging cities also provide residents with service request portals “these cities provide little other spending information.”
The PIRG study acknowledges that cities are strapped for funds and that access to information must compete with a host of essential municipal services. Still, they maintain that “as cities are forced to make difficult budgetary decisions in tough economic times, it is even more important for the public to be able to understand how tax dollars are spent. This includes spending through the tax code and subsidies that would otherwise escape public scrutiny.”
This exhaustive study goes on to describe the methodology in detail. It also expands on the basic tenets of “Encompassing”, “One-Stop” and “One-Click Seaarchable and Downloadable”.
Based on the premise that a system design’s reach should exceed its grasp, the study offers some intriguing thoughts about “cutting edge transparency features.” Researchers describe projects in which cities disclose details on city government revenue including disclosure of details on tax collections. Other cities post information that may reveal and thus prevent conflicts of interest. Still other cities provide public searchable information about how city leaders spend taxpayer dollars.
Several case studies profile the state of transparency in major cities. It is no surprise that the largest cities fare well in the comparisons. The authors are forthcoming about the obstacles and challenges that city governments have in design and implementation of transparency systems. First on the list is limited financial resources; Minneapolis respondents indicated that “given the costs, it would not be in the best interest of our taxpayers to dramatically increase our level of transparency.” It is worthy of note that New York City, a model Straight A municipality, plans to open source the code for its system later this year, a likely boon to cities that can save a bundle on system design if the NYC model fits their needs.
Cities are also hampered by antiquated technology, by privacy and legal concerns and by poor coordination among departments. Each of these obstacles is described in some detail with specifics related to individual cities. In conclusion, the researchers observe:
Public budgets are the most concrete expressions of public values – articulated in dollars and cents. AS cities grapple with difficult decisions in an effort to make budgetary ends meet, transparency websites provide an important tool to allow both citizens and civil servants to make informed choices. With continued progress toward online transparency, citizens will be able to access information one very dollar of their city’s spending – so they can actively and constructively engage in public debates about how these dollars are spent.
Some Minneapolis city officials and staffers will no doubt bristle at the D- grade. It’s hard enough to show a failing report card to parents who love you just the way you are; taxpayers who care about transparency may not be so understanding.
At the same time, many officials and staffers who are responsible for system design and funding will welcome the nudge. This support for the Transparency 2.0 Standard affirms their efforts to ensure open city government.
The U.S. PIRG study underscores the fact that transparency is the hallmark of an A+ city, which all Minneapolitans know that we can be if we just try a little harder…..
Note: The complete study with appendices and references, notes on specific ratings and more is available online.