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North Carolina received a “B+” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
This year’s report recognized more states as leaders than ever before, with all but two states allowing users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three. Likewise, 44 states now provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs. Some states have even innovated entirely new features.
“This year, most states have continued to make their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with NCPIRG Education Fund. "North Carolina, however, has improved only slightly, and still has a few steps left to take before it will be a leader."
Officials from North Carolina and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
North Carolina is still an “advancing” state in the report, improving slightly since last year. The state has already found the web portal to be useful in multiple ways. It was the act of developing a state transparency portal that spurred wholesale reform of the state’s procurement process. During data collection, the state realized that it was using several different systems and processes to source contracts and began a reform initiative to consolidate and standardize procurement activities. Expected benefits for the state include efficiency in operation, saving both time and money, and more effective leveraging of the state’s buying power. North Carolina could improve even further by allowing users to download all its extensive economic development program data in bulk for easier analysis.
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 preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts. North Carolina officials reported that their transparency portal cost $624,000 at launch and costs $80,600 annually.
"Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions," said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. "It's encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible."
State spending transparency appears to be a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of state legislative, gubernatorial or public opinion partisanship and found that neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
The state of Ohio topped the rankings, climbing from a “D-” in 2014 to an “A+” this year for its improvements to the Online Checkbook transparency portal. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable.”
North Carolina’s transparency website is operated by the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM) with substantial help from the Department of Administration (DOA), the Office of the State Controller (OSC), and the Office of Information Technology Services (ITS). To visit it, click here: ncopenbook.gov
To read the full report: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2015
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