From Worst to First
The U.S. Public Research Interest Group (PIRG) is a federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that annually publishes a report rating all 50 US states on providing online access to government spending data. This report is widely used as the best assessment available on state financial transparency. In 2013, PIRG ranked Ohio 46th in the nation for government financial data transparency. In 2014, this failing grade got the attention of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel.
Treasurer Mandel took Ohio’s poor ranking as a challenge and set forth to make a change. To accomplish this, Treasurer Mandel built OhioCheckbook.com which for the first time in state history put every dollar spent online in a searchable database. But this wasn’t just your typical government data dump. OhioCheckbook.com was built as a cutting-edge website that employs “Google-style” search capabilities to revolutionize the way governments shine sunlight on their financial transactions.
As a result of OhioCheckbook.com, U.S. PIRG announced in March 2015 that Treasurer Mandel had earned Ohio the number one transparency ranking in the country for providing online access to government spending data. Ohio climbed from 46th to 1st in the country, and OhioCheckbook.com received a perfect score of 100 points – the highest score in the history of the U.S. PIRG transparency rankings.
OhioCheckbook.com displays more than $621 billion in spending over the past ten years, including more than 168 million transactions. The website includes cutting-edge features such as:
- “Google-style” contextual search capabilities, to allow users to sort by keyword, department, category or vendor;
- Fully dynamic interactive charts to drill down on state spending;
- Functionality to compare state spending year-over-year or among agencies; and,
- Capability to share charts or checks with social media networks, and direct contact for agency fiscal offices.
After launching OhioCheckbook.com in December 2014, Treasurer Mandel set his sights on spreading fiscal transparency to Ohio’s local governments and schools. In April 2015, Treasurer Mandel sent a letter to Ohio’s more than 3,900 local governments extending a partnership invitation to place their local checkbooks online at no cost to the local entity.
Once the invitation to local governments and schools had been extended, partnerships began to form across the state with entities of all types and sizes. One of the early challenges was that municipalities across Ohio were operating on dozens of different accounting systems.
As they started working with municipalities, the Treasurer’s office discovered that there was very little uniform data format between them. They started with 12 basic fields to get the work moving. Making the work even more difficult, many of the small governments lacked basic technology. To help streamline the process, the Ohio Treasurer’s Office partnered with the Ohio Auditor’s office, who offers local governments the Uniformed Accounting Network (UAN) – a centralized financial software service.
The UAN partnership offers local governments a “one-stop-shop” where partnering entities can submit their year-financial reports and checkbook level spending information required to join OhioCheckbook.com in a quick, easy and convenient process. Over 1,900 of Ohio’s townships, villages, libraries and special districts use UAN for their daily accounting operations.
In Delaware County’s Troy Township, Fiscal Officer Sharon Malcom says of her OhioCheckbook.com partnership, “It is a great management tool, at no additional cost, for the officials responsible for the finances of the township. With internet access, they can review the financial data anytime to review trends, drill down to specific expenditures, or just gain a better understanding of the finances of their entity.”
On the other hand, Ohio school districts shared more data uniformity as most were already using a centralized accounting system. 95% of Ohio’s 600 school districts are using the accounting USAS. Having all the data in one place and in the same format, made extracting, loading and publishing it all the much easier.
Karen Blake, the Treasurer of Eastern Ohio’s Martins Ferry Local Schools says, “We just thought it would be good to let everyone know we have nothing to hide and that everything is transparent,” she said. “It can create charts. It shows all your expenditures. It has a lot of capabilities.”
Today, over 1,200 local governments and schools have committed to joining OhioCheckbook.com and this number continues to grow.
Local governments have reported a number of positive benefits to their posting spending information online at OhioCheckbook.com. One such example is the reduction of public records requests.
In Western Ohio’s Village of Elida, Administrator David Metzger found “It’s getting more and more difficult to manage all the public records requests, and we spend countless hours digging through this stuff. “Now (with OhioCheckbook.com) here it is. Find it yourself. We’re saving everybody time and money.”
Additionally, OhioCheckbook.com allows local governments and their decision makers have real-time access to accurate data information that is displayed in easy-to-use formats. Whether this is information is required during a budget negotiation at a council meeting, or in office hours with constituents, local leaders are now armed with an important tool in helping to streamline decision making while empowering constituents.
Setting off of a National Race
In launching OhioCheckbook.com, Treasurer Mandel stated that his goal was to empower taxpayers to hold government officials accountable. Further, he made it known that by dramatically improving Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation that he hoped it would set off a national race for greater transparency. Treasurer Mandel’s goal quickly became reality.
In U.S. PIRG’s 2015 ranking, which Ohio earned its first #1 ranking, Ohio became the first, and only, state to receive a perfect score of 100 points. Other states took notice and quickly began working to play catch up.
The very next year, in U.S. PIRG’s 2016 ranking, Ohio once again earned the #1 ranking, making it the back-to-back national transparency champion. However, there was one major difference between the 2015 and 2016 reports. Treasurer Mandel’s goal of a transparency race had become a reality.
The 2016 U.S. PIRG ranking saw a drastic increase of other states who saw major score improvements over the two years. The cause? Treasurer Mandel’s OhioCheckbook.com.
U.S. PIRG noted in their 2016 report that an important step for leading states would be to support transparency efforts at the municipal and county level. They highlighted Ohio’s work by saying, “Ohio is a leader in this regard, already incorporating many localities into the central transparency site.”
One example of Ohio’s challenge to other states is in their neighboring West Virginia. There, JB McCuskey, in his campaign for State Auditor, ran on increasing their government spending transparency. Now State Auditor, JB McCuskey is in the process of rolling it out. The idea of this excites Mandel and other advocates of government transparency. “I’m excited that JB wants to do this in West Virginia. I think we need transparency more and more because there’s a lot of crooked politicians out there in both parties. The best answer to crooked politicians is sunlight.”
A recent editorial in Louisiana frames the issue nicely and highlights how Ohio has been a national leader: “Imagine if in Louisiana consumers could easily access that type of information from their phone? What do you think that would tell us about how efficiently our government is using our taxpayer dollars? How many of those investments would look like dollars spent to meet the needs of the people as compared to dollars spent to meet the needs of the bureaucracy?’
‘A major injection of technology and transparency in government might help bridge this divide we seem to have between conservatives and liberals in meeting our needs. Everyone wants good schools, strong economies, safe communities and affordable health care. But fewer and fewer of us are willing to continuously buy government’s message that the only way to get there is fewer questions and more money. The market has evolved. Consumer expectations have evolved. Government must also”
Working Together with the Open Data Initiative
In 2013, when Ohio started down this road, it’s doubtful they were considering the broader implication of their open data work. Nevertheless, they have become a national leader, showing other government entities what can be done with a clear vision and a consistent effort to improve.
Transparency is a core principle of a modern government. Levying taxes is a basic governmental function. But voters demand government financial accountability in order to understand if their tax dollars are being spent wisely. Unfortunately, many government organizations fail their obligations regarding financial transparency. One major reason is that these entities often lack the skills and tools necessary. That is why we at the Open Data Initiative are working with organizations like the Ohio Treasurer’s Office to bring the experienced transparency experts and government organizations together.
***Updated 22 December 2017 with syntax corrections and some duplicate text deletions
Also published on Medium.