Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Following the Money 2011

How the 50 States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, and promotes fiscal responsibility.

State governments across the country have been moving toward making their checkbooks transparent by creating online transparency portals – government-operated websites that allow visitors to see who receives state money and for what purposes. Forty states provide transparency websites that allow residents to access databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. Most of these websites are also searchable, making it easier for residents to follow the money and monitor government spending.

This report is the second annual ranking of states’ progress toward new standards of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

Six states – Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin – created new transparency portals in 2010.

Among the forty states that allow residents to access checkbook-level information about government expenditures online, the majority (37) also enable residents to search for expenditures by vendor name or type of service purchased.

  • Arizona and eight other states are “leading states” in the transparency movement, hosting searchable, user-friendly websites that provide comprehensive information on a range of government expenditures. Most of these states provide detailed information on the grants and economic development incentives awarded to companies and organizations; all but one allow visitors to monitor the funds forgone every year through tax expenditures; and more than half provide complete copies of contracts.
  • Thirty-one states are “emerging states” with transparency websites that provide less comprehensive information or, in some cases, are not easily searchable. Some of these states allow citizens to track trends in state spending over time and most of these states allow citizens to find out some details on specific state purchases from particular vendors.
  • Ten other states are “lagging states,” whose online transparency efforts fail to meet the standards of Transparency 2.0. Nine of these states have taken the positive step of creating spending transparency websites, but these sites lack many important Transparency 2.0 aspects, especially vendor-specific information on government spending. Maine is the only state that does not host government spending transparency websites that are accessible to the public.

“Red” states and “Blue” states have both embraced spending transparency. The ranks of leading states are split roughly equally between those that voted Democratic in the last presidential election and those that voted Republican.

Many states are improving their websites beyond basic Transparency 2.0 standards, empowering residents to monitor government spending in unprecedented ways. All states, including leading states, have many opportunities to improve their transparency websites. In the next year, state governments across the country should strive to improve government transparency and accountability online.

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