CHICAGO — Illinois received an “A-” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the Illinois PIRG Education Fund.
“State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Hailey Golds, advocate with the Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “But Illinois still has room for improvement.”
Officials from Illinois and 47 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The report describes Illinois as a “leading state” because the user-friendly website allows users to monitor the payments made to vendors through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending. The website also provides access to spending details from some public entities outside the state’s usual budget and accounting system.
Illinois’ grade is an improvement from the “B-” it received in last year’s report.
Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data.
One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states — all except California and Vermont — this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information about state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information about government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits — up from just eight states three years ago.
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Golds. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand-new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens and include detailed information — allowing all the information to be put to good use.
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
“The state of Illinois should build upon this year’s progress and further improve the breadth and ease-of-access of online government spending information,” said Golds. “Given our state budget problems, Illinoisans need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, visit accountability.illinois.gov.
To read the report, visit http://illinoispirg.org/reports/ilp/following-money-2013.
Illinois PIRG, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest advocacy organization.
From the March 27-April 2, 2013, issue