Online Staff Report
Illinois received a B+ when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fifth annual report of its kind by the Illinois Public Interest Research Group (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 recipients of public subsidies accountable,” said Dev Gowda, advocate with the Illinois PIRG Education Fund. “We’re hoping that Illinois will be a leader next year.”
Brian Costin, director of government reform for Illinois Policy Institute, said: “A recent Gallup survey showed that only 28 percent of Illinois’ residents trust state government, by far the lowest rate in the country. Online transparency is a critical tool in fighting our state’s public corruption problem and restoring the public’s trust in government.”
Kathy Miller, director of communications and development for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, added: “Transparency is instrumental for accountability — enabling citizens to participate and collaborate from a knowledge base. Following the money also ‘inspires’ governments to do better. Illinois PIRG Education Fund’s analysis finds Illinois, for example, to be advancing in transparency with spending information that is easy to access. This is an important factor for those of us who want to know if public policy goals are being met.”
Officials from 45 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. Unfortunately, Illinois was one of only five states that did not respond to the researchers with any feedback. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Described in the report as an “Advancing state,” Illinois’ checkbook is searchable by recipient, keyword and agency. However, few Advancing States provide information about the funds recouped from subsidy recipients who fail to deliver on the agreed-upon public benefits.
Gowda pointed out the following: “Illinois’ score of 88 was a fall from last year’s 92. The state’s transparency improvements didn’t keep pace with rising standards, improved technological capacity and growing public expectations around the country. The ‘Following the Money’ report demonstrates that 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.”
While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to otherwise unscrutinized areas of expenditure. Six states provide public access to checkbook-level data on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs, allowing citizens and public officials to hold subsidy recipients accountable by listing the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and showing the benefits they actually delivered. The most transparent states similarly provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code, on economic development subsidies, and ‘off-budget’ quasi-public agencies.”
Robert Reed, director of investigations/programming for the Better Government Association, said: “Keeping tabs on how the public purse is being tapped by government is a mammoth task, one that is made easier with the information provided by Illinois PIRG’s ‘Following the Money’ report. This national report reveals how open, or closed, each state is when it comes to one of the biggest transparency issues we collectively face: Understanding how billions in tax dollars flow through the government pipeline. ‘Following the Money’ is an eye-opening look at the ‘good, bad and the ugly’ of how public finances are revealed to the people.”
Costin added: “The State of Illinois needs to improve online disclosure of Illinois’ economic development agreements, worth billions of dollars each year. Illinois PIRG’s report shows the State of Illinois falls behind neighbors Indiana and Wisconsin when it comes to providing access to government spending data online. State legislators should use Illinois PIRG’s online transparency report as a road map to good governance and improving the public trust in state government.”
Gowda said: “Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government. It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient, unless information is publicly accessible.”
At least eight states have launched new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report.
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.
“Thanks to this report, it’s confirmed that at a relatively low cost, governments may proactively share with the public their activities and expenditures and further empower the public to act as guardians of their tax dollars,” said Maryam Judar of Citizen Advocacy Center.
State spending transparency is a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of which party rules the state legislature, or sits in the governor’s office, or how public opinion tilts in the states. Neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
Illinois’ transparency website, Illinois Transparency & Accountability Portal (ITAP), is operated by the Illinois governor, and managed by Interactive Systems Group. To visit the site, go to accountability.illinois.gov.
To read the Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report, visit http://www.illinoispirgedfund.org/reports/ilp/following-money-2014.
Posted April 9, 2014