Washington, home of software leaders, gets a bad rap for online transparency. What gives?

A national report card focused only on a site dealing with financial records, ignoring other ways in which state government is quite open. But was there ever a time when we needed financial information more urgently?

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Washington State Capitol

A national report card focused only on a site dealing with financial records, ignoring other ways in which state government is quite open. But was there ever a time when we needed financial information more urgently?

Slipping by virtually unnoticed during a flurry of news, analysis, and events on open government, tied to the recent "Sunshine Week,", was the "F" grade given to Washington in a 50-state report card on the transparency provided by states' web sites.  Is the grade from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) a fair one? Arguably not, and we'll discuss why in a moment. Yet there's also some legitimacy to U.S. PIRG's hyper-focused approach of evaluating each state based on just one central spending transparency site. 

For Washington, the fiscal.wa.gov hub was chosen, appropriately. It was found badly wanting by U.S. PIRG, garnering only 22 out of a possible 100 points. The Washington site scored especially poorly on several key criteria. One is checkbook-level spending detail, including consolidated records of multiple payments to each individual vendor. The state's site was also heavily dinged by PIRG for lack of features allowing search of spending data by contractor or program activity.

Another problem highlighted in the PIRG report was lack of information on so-called "tax expenditures," also known as tax preferences or incentives, which in Washington — as in other states — are granted by the legislature to various types of business, or for certain business activities, and total billions in foregone biennial state tax revenues.

True, some of the missing information accented by U.S. PIRG can be found on other Washington state web sites, at least partially. And the Office of Financial Management, which put together the site analyzed by U.S. PIRG, says more contract data is on the way. But convenience and data consolidation are indeed key.

We no longer can or should rely on a priesthood of investigative journalists to monitor government accountability. It's everybody's business, more than ever. 

Earning top grades in the survey by progressive political champion U.S. PIRG were the sites Open Door Kentucky, the Indiana Transparency Portal, the Louisiana Transparency and Accountability portal, Texas Transparency, and Open Books Arizona.  

U.S. PIRG's report does not grade states on the strength of their open records and open meetings laws or recent attempts to erode those laws, which bear constant monitoring. And PIRG's "F" for Washington state's online transparency misses how much the state is already doing.  

Washington state's Public Disclosure Commission is a national model for online transparency in campaign finance, personal financial disclosure by elected officials, and lobbying activities. The state legislature's web site allows topic-specific searches of bills, provides timely updates on disposition and amendments, committee agendas and documents, and more. Our legislature has not escaped fair criticism, however, for stealthily holding hearings on new bills without adequate public notice (last year, particularly) and recently, for introducing spates of "title-only" bills used for opaque, last-minute budget maneuvers. On balance though, the legislature has done well on transparency.  

State audits always posted online regularly probe local and regional governments and state agencies, the findings often making headlines, feeding blog and social media reports, and inspiring change in accounting safeguards, spending practices, government ethics and oversight, and public asset management. There's much more online transparency thanks to Washington state government, but it's too often siloed, unmapped and not typically available in formats friendly to software developers. 

It would be easy to say that the real grade right now for Washington state's online transparency efforts, and those of other U.S. states and local and regional taxing bodies, should be "incomplete." But that easy dodge is getting stale. There's too much at stake in tight fiscal times, where brutal decisions have to made, ones more and more often based upon the return on investment of public funds. That's hard to measure and we certainly can't count on elected officials and government employees alone to set the metrics and pronounce the results.  

Transparency and accountability in government are all about assessment of programs and performance. Should not the same standards also be applied directly to online government transparency initiatives?  

The trick is to know what to measure, how best to engineer the fixes, and how to successfully distribute the responsibilities for improved transparency, between governments and concerned community stakeholders. 

This article originally appeared in Social Capital Review


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