Looking for government transparency

recovery_gov_symbolWhen the Obama Administration started working on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, (ARRA) they knew transparency and open government had to be one of the bill’s hallmarks. The administration also knew that a significant amount of that transparency was going to be left up to state and local officials.

According to the latest figures from the Office of Management and Budget, about half a trillion dollars is going to be injected into the economy in the form of spending – most of which will go directly to state and local government. Beyond budget and public finance officials a significant burden is being placed on state information officers. Technology is being leveraged to wash government’s hands.

State CIOs are juggling multiple bosses at once in this kind environment because not only are they dealing with their governor, their state legislatures, the federal government and the public, but the private sector is also bombarding them with ways they can help spend stimulus dollars.

“I think that’s one of the things that all of us are challenged with,” said California CIO Teri Takai in a recent Government Technology interview. “There are notes flying back and forth among states asking each other what they’ve set up. And I’ve got vendors sending me notes like mad offering to help. I’m still trying figure out what I have to report, how much reporting is going to be done through normal channels and how much reporting needs to be done separately.”

A whole host of requirements was handed down from the Office of Management and Budget last week – most of which, state officials will tell you, are vague and ambiguous at best.

“We told our people to keep track of everything,” said Duane Gossen, Kansas Secretary for the Department of Administration, during an online event, sponsored by Symantec. “Every state is waiting for more guidance from OMB.”

Governing sponsored a forum Thursday afternoon on tools and processes that can help state and local leaders meet ARRA requirements. Two case studies highlighted were Kansas’s KanView and Missouri’s MAP Web sites. Mr. Gossen spoke on KanView’s functionality and future, while former Missouri CIO Dan Ross talked about his state’s efforts.

Two years ago, KanView didn’t exist and the concept wasn’t on anyone’s agenda, Mr. Gossen said. But a bill was passed by the legislature in late 2007 that required the state to account for their spending in a way the public could access the data easily. Around that same time, the Governor’s office was pushing for money to replace their twenty-year-old financial management system. After working with the legislature, they agreed to fund the new financial management system if an online transparency Web site would be built.

KanView was built for no direct costs to the state through the Kansas Information Consortium, now a subsidiary of NIC Inc., a company specializing in eGovernment services and information. One major shortfall of the system is that data is not processed at or near real time. The latest budget numbers are from the end of the last fiscal cycle, but Kansas CIO Denise Moore said that when the new financial management system comes online, in about a year, KanView data would be in real time.

Missouri’s Accountability Portal, or MAP, is the standard by which most “open book” government Web sites measure themselves. The project was built in conjunction with Peer Technologies in under one year after the executive order came down from the Governor’s office in July 2007. The Enterprise Resource Planning system cost the state about $140,000, but Dan Ross thinks it was worth every penny.

“I can’t name a downside to this,” Mr. Ross said during the forum.

MAP was a three-phase, 6400-hour project that documented all state expenditures, starting with fiscal year 2000 data. The second phase was meant for Missouri’s unique tax structure. It gathered data on Missouri’s more than fifty individual tax credits to identify tax liability for those in line for tax credits. The third phase has published all state employees’ salaries, including state representatives’ expense accounts.

ARRA’s affect on the Missouri site will be minimal; they’ll be conducting business as usual. And Mr. Gossen said KanView would incorporate ARRA data with their general funds data until the new system is set up.

According to Transparent-gov.com, thirty-one states have “state checkbook” or “open book” Web sites. According to Transparent-gov.com, “state checkbook” Web sites are interactive and searchable online databases displaying state revenues and expenses by fiscal year. And “open book” sites are an expanded view of state financials that includes a description of the budgeting process, appropriation information, annual and monthly spending by agency, and types of expenses – including employee salaries. Transparent-gov.com is run by the aforementioned NIC Inc., but they assure readers that they’ve gathered data in a non-compromising manner.

As for what local leaders should be doing if their state doesn’t have an “open book” or “state checkbook”? Make sure you’re working on one and gather all the data you can. Because no one wants to be caught with their pants down.