Government Technology

Report Grades Cities’ Transparency Websites on Spending



January 25, 2013 By Michael Maciag

Whether it’s reviewing credit card bills or reading reviews of the newest neighborhood restaurant, more Americans use the Internet to monitor where their money is spent. But, depending on where they live, some aren’t able to do the same for taxpayer dollars.

A report published this week by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) examines government spending transparency, grading 30 cities on how well “checkbook-level” information is presented online. The study – the first of its kind assessing local government transparency – found some cities lag far behind others.

Seventeen of the 30 governments reviewed provided public spending data online, typically via searchable databases. The remaining 13 had not yet established databases maintaining vendor payments, subsidies and other expenditures. Only five cities made copies of city contracts available online, and five others disclosed individual tax subsidies awarded.

“How governments spend the public purse is something people should have easy access to,” said Phineas Baxandall, a PIRG senior analyst who co-authored the report. “Transparency is really important for good fiscal management and checking against corruption so citizens can feel confident in how their governments spend tax dollars.”

The PIRG report lauded New York City’s “My Money NYC” Web portal, which re-launched this week with dashboards for more than 100 agencies. While other government transparency websites list only contract amounts, the city posts actual dollars dispersed, enabling citizens to detect cost overruns.

Other cities’ websites feature their own innovative tools. Chicago’s system details vendor payments issued since 1996, along with beneficiaries of tax-increment financing districts. On its website, Pittsburgh posts reports filed by mayors and council members outlining their business connections to curb potential conflicts of interest.

PIRG evaluated each city’s transparency efforts by measuring a series of 12 criteria. Part of the assessment looked at the breadth of the information provided, such as vendor payments, detailed tax expenditures and budgets. The report also scored the extent to which the information was readily available, emphasizing centralized websites, searching capability and downloadable data.

In general, the nation’s largest cities with more resources received the highest marks. There were notable exceptions, though, with Cincinnati earning the fifth highest score overall.

New York and Chicago were awarded an “A” grade, while five cities were slapped with “Fs.” PIRG scored the largest cities in the 30 most populous metro areas, as shown in the following table:

City governments decide to launch online portals for a variety of reasons. Most often, Baxandall said, a politician, comptroller or other official uses his or her clout to make transparency initiatives a priority.

“Sometimes they do it because they have a vision and sense of a personal mission about it. Other times, there may be a scandal or something they’re trying to overcome,” he said.

For cities with limited or nonexistent transparency websites, startup costs are often a concern. But such initiatives typically don't cost too much, with most cities’ price tags ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 in the report. New York City, though, spent far more -- about $2.4 million -- developing its transparency portal.

The good news for cities with fewer resources is that New York City plans to open source the code for its system later this year, potentially enabling cities to launch their own transparency cities at a fraction of the cost.

Other barriers preventing cities from stepping up their transparency efforts include bureaucratic hurdles and standardizing data across multiple departments, Baxandall said.

The report cited tax breaks and service requests from citizens as two data sets commonly absent from many public websites. Cities maintaining robust online portals also must ensure information is centralized and available in downloadable formats or through an application programming interface.

“As cities grapple with difficult decisions in an effort to make budgetary ends meet, transparency websites provide an important tool to allow both citizens and civil servants to make informed choices,” the report concludes.

This story was originally published at GOVERNING.com

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


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