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Online government spending transparency continues to improve, but many states still struggle to meet 21st century standards, according to Following the Money 2018: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data. This is the eighth report of its kind produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and Frontier Group.
The report graded each state’s transparency website from “A” to “F” based on its content and user-friendliness. This year, for the first time, we worked with focus groups to see how well the sites worked for ordinary Americans. With that new standard, most states’ grades dropped.
"The public has a right to know how and when their tax dollars are being spent so that they can hold elected officials and civil servants accountable for ethical, effective stewardship of funds,” said Alex Howard, Deputy Director of the Sunlight Foundation.
The report found that many states’ websites lack features that make them intuitive for users, such as a full search function, standardized data descriptions and interactive tools.
“These sites can often be confusing for citizen users. Our focus groups put these transparency websites to the test and found only a handful meet the expectations of a 21st century user.” said Rachel J. Cross, a Frontier Group analyst and report co-author.
Collectively, states present information about hundreds of billions of dollars of government spending in great detail. That transparency can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
Ohio and West Virginia tied for the highest score this year. After earning a “D-” in 2014, Ohio has received an “A+” every year.
West Virginia also has undergone a meteoric rise. After earning a “C” in 2015, the state jumped a full letter grade in 2016 before getting an A+ this year. Since 2016, West Virginia has launched a robust, user-friendly site with comprehensive information about the state’s subsidy programs.
“Every dollar the state spends is a person's dollar. Just because it goes into the state capitol doesn't mean the state owns it. It still belongs to the public,” West Virginia State Auditor John B. “JB” McCuskey said. “I [want] to make sure every citizen knows where their money is going.”
“Most states put a lot of information on line, but it’s completely unusable for an ordinary person,” said Michelle Surka, Tax and Budget Campaign Director with U.S. PIRG Education Fund.
“If people can’t actually find the information they’re looking for, and understand it without a background in state bureaucracy, then it doesn’t matter how much data is online.”
To read the full report:
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