Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund

Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund
Following the Money 2018
How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online
Access to Government Spending Data
Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund
Following the Money 2018
  How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online
       Access to Government Spending Data

                              Rachel J. Cross, Frontier Group

   Michelle Surka and Scott Welder, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

                                                  April 2018
Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund

The authors thank the public officials from the 41 states who responded to our survey
questions and/or evaluation of their transparency websites. We appreciate the thoughtful
comments on this document provided by Ann Ebberts of the Association of Government
Accountants. Our appreciation goes to our team of 27 focus group participants for their
research assistance. For editorial assistance, thanks go to Tony Dutzik and Gideon Weiss-
man at Frontier Group.

The authors bear any responsibility for factual errors. The recommendations are those of
U.S. PIRG Education Fund. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors
and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or those who provided review.

   2018 U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Some Rights Reserved. This work is licensed under
a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. To view the terms of this license, visit www.

With public debate around important issues often dominated by special interests pursuing
their own narrow agendas, U.S. PIRG Education Fund offers an independent voice that works
on behalf of the public interest. U.S. PIRG Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization, works to
protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions,
educate the public and offer Americans meaningful opportunities for civic participation. For
more information, please visit our website at

Frontier Group provides information and ideas to help citizens build a cleaner, healthier
and more democratic America. We address issues that will define our nation’s course in
the 21st century – from fracking to solar energy, global warming to transportation, clean
water to clean elections. Our experts and writers deliver timely research and analysis that
is accessible to the public, applying insights gleaned from a variety of disciplines to arrive
at new ideas for solving pressing problems. For more information about Frontier Group,
please visit

Cover Image: Negative Space CC0
Layout: Alec Meltzer/
Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund

Executive Summary                                                                    1
Introduction                                                                         6
Transparency Websites Empower Citizens to Track Government Spending                  7
 Transparency Websites Make Government More Effective and Accountable                7
 Transparency Websites Give Users Detailed Information on Government Expenditures   11
Making the Grade: Scoring States’ Online Spending Transparency                      15
 Leading “A” States                                                                 17
 Advancing “B” States                                                               17
 Middling “C” States                                                                18
 Lagging “D” States                                                                 19
 Failing “F” States                                                                 19
What Makes a Transparency Website Usable?: Feedback from the Focus Groups           20
 Search Bars and Other Searchability Functions                                      20
 Expenditures: Itemization, Descriptions, and Subtotals                             21
 Checkbook Interface                                                                23
New and Notable Features Help the Public to “Follow the Money”                      27
 New or Overhauled Websites                                                         27
 Cutting-Edge Practices                                                             27
Continuing the Momentum toward Greater Transparency:
How States Can Improve their Websites                                               31
Appendix A: Methodology                                                             34
Appendix B: Transparency Scorecard                                                  49
Appendix C: List of Questions Posed to Transparency Website Officials               55
Appendix D: Agencies or Departments Responsible for
Administering Transparency Websites by State                                        57
Endnotes                                                                            59
Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund
Executive Summary

     tate governments spend hundreds of           All 50 states now operate websites to
     billions of dollars each year on every-    make information on state expenditures
     thing from employee salaries and of-       accessible to the public. All but four
fice supplies to professional lawyers and       states provide checkbook-level data for
subsidies to encourage economic develop-        one or more economic development
ment. Public accountability helps ensure        subsidy programs and more than half of
that state funds are spent wisely.              states make that subsidy data available
   State-operated transparency websites         for researchers to download and analyze.
provide checkbook-level detail on gov-          These websites not only provide citizens
ernment spending, allowing citizens and         with useful information, they are regu-
watchdog groups to view payments made           larly used by citizens; in 2017 alone,
to individual companies, details on pur-        at least 1.5 million users viewed over
chased goods or services, and benefits ob-      8.7 million pages on state transpar-
tained in exchange for public subsidies.        ency websites.1

Table ES-1: Top 10 and Bottom 10 States in Providing Online Access to Government
Spending Data

Top 10 States                                  Bottom 10 States
 State             Grade    Score    Rank      State              Grade   Score   Rank
 Ohio                A+      98      1 (tie)   Wyoming              F      35      50
 West Virginia       A+      98      1 (tie)   Alaska               F      46      49
 Minnesota           A       94      3 (tie)   California           F      47      48
 Wisconsin           A       94      3 (tie)   Hawaii               F      48      47
 Arizona             A-      93      5 (tie)   Tennessee           D-      54      46
 Connecticut         A-      93      5 (tie)   Rhode Island        D       55      45
 Iowa                A-      91        7       Alabama             D       56      44
 Louisiana           A-      90        8       Georgia             D       57      43
 South Carolina      B+      87        9       Idaho               D       58      42
 Kentucky            B       85     10 (tie)   Oklahoma            D+      60      41
 Nevada              B       85     10 (tie)

                                                                                           Executive Summary   1
Following the Money 2018 - How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data - US PIRG Education Fund
Figure ES-1. How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government
                     Spending Data



                       However, this analysis – U.S. PIRG                 user-friendly websites that provide visi-
                     Education Fund’s eighth evaluation of                tors with accessible and comprehensive
                     state transparency websites – finds that             information on state spending. Citizens
                     despite continued improvements in                    can access information on specific ex-
                     transparency websites, states still have             penditures through easy-to-use features,
                     a long way to go in making critical data             including a multi-tiered search function
                     about state spending truly accessible to             that allows users to search for two or
                     the public. (See Figure ES-1 and Table               more criteria at once.
                     ES-1.) State governments should follow
                     the example set by the nation’s “Leading         • Advancing States (“B” range): 11 states
                     States” in enabling their residents to “fol-       are advancing in online spending
                     low the money” on state spending.                  transparency, with spending informa-
                                                                        tion that is easy to access but more lim-
                       Eight states, led by Ohio and West Vir-          ited than the information provided by
                     ginia, are leading in spending transpar-           Leading States. All of these states host
                     ency, setting an example for other states          online checkbooks that are download-
                     nationwide.                                        able as well as searchable by recipient,
                                                                        keyword and agency, and all but Ore-
                     • Leading States (“A” range): Eight states         gon include a subtotaling function that
                       are leading the charge in online spending        sums spending by department and cat-
                       transparency. These states have created          egory automatically for users.

2   Following the Money 2018
Confirmations of Findings with State Officials

           ur researchers sent initial assessments and a list of questions to transparency
           website officials in all 50 states in order to ensure that the information pre-
           sented in this report is accurate and up to date.
      For the majority of the grades, state transparency officials were given the oppor-
    tunity to verify information, clarify their online features, and discuss the benefits
    of transparency best practices in their states. Of the 50 states, officials from 41
    states provided feedback. For a list of the questions posed to state officials, please
    see Appendix C.
      Due to the nature of the new “Real World” test – in which states were graded on
    the ability of a reviewer to find information on a state website within a given peri-
    od of time – states were not offered the ability to review the results of that portion
    of the evaluation. States were alerted to the purpose of and methods to be used
    in the Real World evaluation during our initial contact with them in winter 2018.

• Middling States (“C” range): This                  Many states have a long way to go in
  year, 17 states are “Middling” in online        providing comprehensive information
  spending transparency. Their online             that is accessible to the public. In or-
  checkbooks have the same basic search           der to grade state transparency websites
  functionality as those in Leading and           on their comprehensiveness and usability,
  Advancing States, but lack other us-            27 professional and amateur researchers
  ability tools and provide limited infor-        participated in our focus groups, looking
  mation on subsidies or other “off bud-          for six specific expenditures on state sites
  get” expenditures.                              and evaluating how easily they were able
                                                  to find and understand the information.
• Lagging States (“D” range): The 10              Many websites failed to match the user-
  Lagging States fail to provide users            friendliness and intuitiveness common to
  with essential tools for using and un-          Americans’ everyday experience of the In-
  derstanding the data posted in their            ternet.
  checkbook portals, and trail behind
  other states in providing specific infor-       • Only three states – Kentucky, Arkan-
  mation about the expected and actual              sas and South Carolina – proved com-
  benefits delivered by economic devel-             prehensive by hosting all six of the test
  opment subsidy programs.                          expenditures in an easily accessible for-
                                                    mat in the online checkbook for fiscal
• Failing States (“F” range): Four states           year 2017.
  fail to meet the basic standards of on-
  line spending transparency. For exam-           • Researchers were able to locate three
  ple, Wyoming’s checkbook lacks a fully            or fewer of the six test expenditures on
  functional search feature, while Hawaii           30 states’ websites; of those, research-
  has not posted any spending data for              ers were unable to locate any of the ex-
  years after 2016.                                 penditures in 13 states.

                                                                                                 Executive Summary   3
Table ES-2: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government
                     Spending Data

                       State            Grade      Score         State             Grade     Score
                       Alabama           D          56           Montana            C-        69
                       Alaska            F          46           Nebraska           B-        80
                       Arizona           A-         93           Nevada             B         85
                       Arkansas          B-         82           New Hampshire      C         73
                       California        F          47           New Jersey         C-        67
                       Colorado          C+         78           New Mexico         C+        75
                       Connecticut       A-         93           New York           C+        78
                       Delaware          B-         80           North Carolina     C+        76
                       Florida           C+         76           North Dakota       C-        68
                       Georgia           D          57           Ohio               A+        98
                       Hawaii            F          48           Oklahoma           D+        60
                       Idaho             D          58           Oregon             B-        81
                       Illinois          B          84           Pennsylvania       C         73
                       Indiana           B          83           Rhode Island       D         55
                       Iowa              A-         91           South Carolina     B+        87
                       Kansas            C          73           South Dakota       C         72
                       Kentucky          B          85           Tennessee          D-        54
                       Louisiana         A-         90           Texas              B-        82
                       Maine             D+         62           Utah               C+        78
                       Maryland          D+         63           Vermont            C-        67
                       Massachusetts     B-         80           Virginia           C         74
                       Michigan          C+         78           Washington         C         71
                       Minnesota         A          94           West Virginia      A+        98
                       Mississippi       D+         63           Wisconsin          A         94
                       Missouri          D+         62           Wyoming            F         35

4   Following the Money 2018
• Only 34 states provide for automatic          Disclosure for all programs would pro-
  generation of subtotals for spending by       vide greater transparency and account-
  department or expenditure category, a         ability.
  feature that helps ensure that spending
  data is easy to find and understand for    • Four states – Alabama, California,
  users.                                       Tennessee and Vermont – do not pro-
                                               vide tax expenditure reports on their
• Only 24 states provide a multi-tiered        transparency websites that detail the
  search function that allows users to         impact on the state budget of targeted
  narrow their results by searching with-      tax credits, exemptions or deductions.
  in department and expenditure catego-
  ries simultaneously, or by conducting a    • No state provides a comprehensive
  second search inside the parameters of       list of government entities outside the
  their first.                                 standard state budget. Ideally, all gov-
                                               ernmental and quasi-governmental
  All states, including Leading States,        entities – even those that are entirely
have opportunities to improve their            financially self-supporting – would
transparency.                                  integrate their expenditures into the
                                               online checkbook, and a central regis-
• Only 33 states provide checkbook-lev-        try of all such entities would be avail-
  el information that includes the recipi-     able for public reference. Some states
  ents of economic development subsidy         provide comprehensive information
  programs, based on an analysis of three      on quasi-public agencies, but other
  such programs in each state. (See page       entities like special districts are still
  36 of the methodology for details.)          excluded.

                                                                                           Executive Summary   5

                         tates spend money on a wide variety         for accessing information about state gov-
                         of things. Interest on debt payments.       ernment spending, and many states now
                         The state fair tractor pull. A tax break    provide citizens with sophisticated and us-
                     for the filming of Law & Order: SVU,            er-friendly online interfaces for searching
                     Season 11. Wall clocks.                         through data. Collectively, states present
                       With so many moving parts in state            information about hundreds of billions of
                     government, it can be difficult for citizens    dollars of government spending in great
                     to reach a satisfying answer to the ques-       detail, and increasingly are expanding the
                     tion: Where exactly do my tax dollars go?       definition of spending transparency to
                       In the 21st century – when citizens can       include state expenditures that occur in-
                     register to vote online, enroll their chil-     directly through the tax code or through
                     dren in school online, and check the status     “off budget” government entities.
                     of their parking tickets online – taxpayers       This report is the eighth Following the
                     should also be able to track how their gov-     Money report assessing states’ ongoing
                     ernment spends its money online. True           progress in opening the books on expendi-
                     transparency not only requires states to        tures by state governments. It also points
                     post financial information online, but also     to the need and opportunity for continued
                     to do so in user-friendly, intuitive plat-      improvement.
                     forms that don’t require sifting through          States spend money on a wide variety
                     arcane budget categories, navigating com-       of things. Health care. Public safety. Lab
                     plex bureaucratic structures, downloading       fees for drinking water tests and training
                     special software, or calculating totals on      for algebra teachers. Citizens deserve the
                     scraps of paper to uncover and understand       opportunity to participate in decisions
                     the ways their tax dollars are spent.           about how common resources are spent.
                       Increasingly, states are meeting citizens’    In an increasingly digital world, online-
                     expectations for accessible spending data       accessible financial information is a good
                     through online transparency portals. Ev-        way to enable citizens to take part in that
                     ery state now offers at least a basic website   conversation.

6   Following the Money 2018
Transparency Websites Empower
Citizens to Track Government Spending

                                                    Transparency Websites

     ublic information is not truly accessible
     unless it is online. Government spend-         Save Money
     ing transparency websites give citizens        States with transparency websites often re-
and government officials the ability to mon-        alize significant financial returns on their
itor many aspects of state spending in order        investment. The savings include more ef-
to save taxpayer money, prevent corruption,         ficient government administration, more
reduce potential abuse of public dollars, and       competitive bidding for public projects, and
encourage the achievement of a wide variety         less staff time spent on information requests.
of public policy goals.
                                                      Transparency websites can save money
                                                    in a variety of ways, including:
Transparency Websites
Make Government More                                • Negotiating contracts and increasing
Effective and Accountable
States with good transparency web portals             ∘∘ Vendors seeking to do business with
have experienced a wide variety of ben-                  the state of Ohio have reported using
efits, including saving money and obtaining     as a business
assistance in the achievement of other pub-              analytics tool, which has allowed
lic policy goals. This can add up to millions of         them to determine when they can of-
dollars in taxpayer savings. Harder to measure           fer a state agency a product at a better
is the potential abuse or misspending that is            value than the agency was currently
avoided because government officials, con-               receiving. In addition, an elected of-
tractors and subsidy recipients know that the            ficial from Hamilton County said
public may be looking over their shoulders.              that he used the site to compare the
Transparency websites also help citizen watch-           prices paid for road salt in neighbor-
dogs and journalists ensure that government              ing villages to ensure that the county
contractors and vendors deliver goods or ser-            was getting a competitive rate.2
vices at a reasonable price and allow for public
scrutiny of economic development subsidies.         • Reducing costly information requests.

                                                   Transparency Websites Empower Citizens to Track Government Spending   7
∘∘ Mississippi reported that every in-          curement processes and streamlined gov-
                          formation request fulfilled by its           ernment as a result of their government
                          transparency website rather than by          transparency efforts. In North Carolina,
                          a state employee saves the state be-         for example, the development of a state
                          tween $750 and $1,000 in staff time.3        transparency portal spurred wholesale re-
                                                                       form of the state’s procurement process.
                       ∘∘ South Carolina open records requests         During data collection, the state realized
                          initially dropped by two-thirds after        that it was using several different systems
                          the creation of its transparency web-        and processes to source contracts and be-
                          site, reducing staff time and saving an      gan a reform initiative to consolidate and
                          estimated tens of thousands of dollars.4     standardize procurement activities. Ex-
                                                                       pected benefits for the state include great-
                     • Identifying and eliminating inefficient         er efficiency, saving both time and money,
                       expenditures.                                   and more effective leveraging of the state’s
                                                                       buying power.7
                       ∘∘ In Texas, the Comptroller’s office uses        Other states have used their online
                          its transparency website to evaluate         checkbooks to improve the functionality
                          state agency spending patterns. By           of local governments. In Ohio, six local
                          monitoring contracts more closely and        governments made the decision to join
                          sourcing services from new vendors           the state’s online checkbook following
                          when the potential for cost-cutting          corruption scandals for an official’s misuse
                          was identified, the state claims to have     of public funds. By posting their finan-
                          saved more than $163 million.5               cials online, these governments sought to
                                                                       restore public trust and signify the begin-
                       ∘∘ State agencies in Arkansas have used the     ning of a new chapter to their citizens.8
                          state’s transparency portal to monitor
                          travel spending and ensure that employ-
                          ees are making prudent decisions. For
                                                                       Online Transparency Costs Little
                          example, the Arkansas Teacher Retire-        The benefits of transparency websites
                          ment System has downloaded and ana-          have come with a low price tag, both for
                          lyzed travel spending data to ensure state   initial creation of the websites and ongo-
                          employees are carpooling when possible,      ing maintenance. Several states – includ-
                          reducing the agency’s travel costs.6         ing South Carolina and Ohio – created
                                                                       and update their websites with funds from
                                                                       their existing budgets.9
                     Online Transparency                                 As technology continues to improve,
                     Provides Support for                              states may be able to lower their overhead
                     Achieving Policy Goals                            costs even more. Massachusetts notes that
                                                                       the platform utilized by their previous
                     Transparency websites provide states with         checkbook site was expensive to custom-
                     tools to assess their progress toward com-        ize and continued to incur high annual
                     munity investment, economic develop-              costs through licensing and web hosting
                     ment, waste and abuse prevention and              fees. Last year, the state transferred to a
                     other public policy goals. Online transpar-       “Software as a Service” system, hosting
                     ency portals allow states to better measure       their transparency portal through a cloud-
                     and manage the progress of programs.              based system. The move has saved Mas-
                       Some states have improved their pro-            sachusetts considerable money as the new

8   Following the Money 2018
Table 1. Cost to Create and Maintain a Transparency Website11

 State            Start-Up Costs                     Annual Operating Costs

 Alabama          $125,000                           Less than $12,000

 Alaska           $5,000                             “Nominal”

 Arizona          $20,000 for implementation of      $120,000 + $1,000 for each local government added
                  new website

 Arkansas         $558,000                           $175,000

 California       -                                  -

 Colorado         $200,000 from existing budget,     $169,400 from existing budget
                  plus existing staff time

 Connecticut      Existing budget                    $18,000

 Delaware         Existing budget                    $36,000 for Open Checkbook

 Florida          Existing budget                    $421,978, including staff time and benefits, consulting and
                                                     IT maintenance

 Georgia          Existing budget                    $30,000, from existing budget

 Hawaii           Existing budget                    Existing budget

 Idaho            Approximately $28,000 from         Existing budget
                  existing budget

 Illinois         Approximately $100,000             Approximately $10,000

 Indiana          -                                  -

 Iowa             Less than $330,000 over three      $120,000

 Kansas           $175,000, excluding                Existing budget
                  administrative support

 Kentucky         $150,000                           Existing budget, plus a significant upgrade in 2014 costing
                                                     $25,000 for IT programming; costs for state planning,
                                                     oversight, decision-making and testing were not tracked

 Louisiana        $350,000 projected for new         $25,000
                  website currently in design over
                  three fiscal years

 Maine            $30,000                            $25,000

 Maryland         $65,000                            $5,000

 Massachusetts    $125,000 for website redesign      $443,700 in 2017, including data module addition and

 Michigan         $50,000 to upgrade website         $56,000

 Minnesota        Existing budget                    $10,000 for web hosting and analytic service

 Mississippi      $2,200,000                         $413,000, including personnel

 Missouri         $293,140 from existing budget      $3,332, plus staff time for maintenance

                                             Transparency Websites Empower Citizens to Track Government Spending   9
Table 1 (cont’d). Cost to Create and Maintain a Transparency Website11

 State                  Start-Up Costs                          Annual Operating Costs

 Montana                Existing budget                         $10,150 for application hosting and development and

 Nebraska               $30,000-$60,000                         $25,000

 Nevada                 $78,000                                 $30,000

 New Hampshire          Existing budget                         Existing budget

 New Jersey             $372,667 for initial purchase           $147,872, including updates and upgrades
                        of and switchover to Socrata

 New Mexico             $230,000                                $36,000

 New York               Existing budget                         -

 North Carolina         $624,000                                $80,600

 North Dakota           $231,000                                $42,500

 Ohio                   $814,000, from existing budget          Existing budget

 Oklahoma               $8,000, plus staff time                 $5,000

 Oregon                 Existing budget                         Existing budget

 Pennsylvania           $900,000                                Existing budget

 Rhode Island           Existing budget                         $6,400

 South Carolina         Existing budget                         Existing budget

 South Dakota           $2,840 on updates                       "Negligible"

 Tennessee              Existing budget                         $60,000 for a website upgrade that came from the
                                                                existing budget

 Texas                  $310,000                                No external costs, apart from in-house personnel

 Utah                   $240,855 ($192,000 initial plus         $86,066, including web hosting and maintenance
                        $48,855 for enhancements)

 Vermont                Existing budget                         Existing budget

 Virginia               Existing budget, including a            Existing budget, plus one full-time staff member
                        2017 redesign

 Washington             $340,000                                $190,000

 West Virginia          $271,216.50                             Existing budget

 Wisconsin              $160,000                                $174,442

 Wyoming                $1,800                                  -

Note: Some costs are approximations. Blank cells indicate that state officials did not provide or did not track the information. Funds
for many websites for which states provided specific costs (as opposed to “existing budget”) came from the agency’s existing budget
allocation as opposed to a separate appropriation. To see a list of the agencies or departments responsible for administering the
transparency websites in each state, see Appendix D.

10    Following the Money 2018
system eliminates site infrastructure costs      with the state’s community college system
and has automatic data-loading capabili-         used the transparency website to collect
ties, saving personnel time that would be        data on the salaries of some employees
otherwise spent on continuous manual             in order to conduct analysis and was able
site maintenance.10 States hindered by           to find all the needed information on the
high website costs due to site infrastruc-       state’s transparency website.16
ture or personnel costs, or other barriers
such as limited staff time may benefit from
making a similar move.

                                                 Transparency Websites Give
Transparency Websites                            Users Detailed Information
Are Important and
Useful to Residents
                                                 on Government Expenditures
                                                 Current best practices for government
Residents, watchdog groups and govern-           spending transparency call for websites that
ment officials use the tools and access the      are comprehensive, one-stop, one-click and
information available on transparency            meet modern standards of usability.
websites. In 2017 alone, at least 1.5 mil-
lion users viewed over 8.7 million pages         Comprehensive
on state transparency websites.12 The
posting of state financial data online has       High-quality transparency websites offer
enabled citizens to access important in-         broad and detailed spending information,
formation about how their state spends           and help citizens answer three key ques-
money. In just the first two years of Ohio’s     tions: How much does the government
checkbook, for example, the state’s web-         spend on particular goods and services?
site was used to conduct almost a million        Which companies receive public funds
searches.13 As states have improved both         for these goods and services? And what
the quality of posted information and the        results are achieved by specific expendi-
usability of sites, usage has risen; the num-    tures? Topflight transparency websites
ber of users logging on to New Jersey’s          empower citizens to answer those ques-
transparency website, for example, has in-       tions for every major category of state
creased more than seven-fold in just four        spending, including:
years, while the number of page views of
the Pennsylvania site has increased from         • Payments to private vendors and
33,000 views in 2012 to over half a million        nonprofits. Many government agen-
in 2017.14                                         cies spend large portions of their
   State transparency websites aren’t only         budgets on outside vendors through
used by state residents curious about how          contracts, grants and payments made
their government spends its money; oth-            outside the formal bidding process.17
ers, including government officials them-          For example, in fiscal year 2017, Wis-
selves, use these websites as well. West           consin’s state agencies spent $520 mil-
Virginia noted that several research groups        lion on outside services.18 These con-
and think tanks have used the website to           tracted vendors are generally subject to
obtain information for white papers with           fewer public accountability rules, such
recommendations on state spending.15               as sunshine laws, civil service reporting
Washington state shared that an employee           requirements and freedom of infor-

                                                Transparency Websites Empower Citizens to Track Government Spending   11
mation laws. In addition, even when           program cuts elsewhere. But, once cre-
                         vendors are subject to disclosure rules,      ated, tax expenditures typically are not
                         they may resist releasing data, claiming      subject to the same oversight as direct
                         a need to protect trade secrets.19            government appropriations because
                                                                       they do not appear as state budget line
                      • Subsidies such as tax credits for eco-         items subject to legislative debate and
                        nomic development. State and local             they rarely require legislative approval
                        governments allocate more than $80             to renew. For these reasons, spending
                        billion each year to private entities in       through the tax code is in particular
                        the form of economic development               need of disclosure. States that follow
                        subsidies.20 These incentives – which          transparency best practices provide
                        can take the form of grants, loans, tax        transparency and accountability for
                        credits and tax exemptions – are award-        tax expenditures, usually by providing
                        ed with the intent to create jobs and          a link on their transparency portal to
                        spur growth, yet many governments              a tax expenditure report, which details
                        fail to disclose adequate company-spe-         a state’s tax credits, deductions and
                        cific information on these expenditures        exemptions and the resulting revenue
                        and their outcomes. When informa-              loss from each program.
                        tion is lacking on whether companies
                        deliver on promised benefits, state of-     • Quasi-public agencies. Each state
                        ficials cannot hold them accountable or       contains a number of independent
                        make fully informed decisions to gen-         government corporations that are
                        erate greater “bang for the buck” from        created through enabling legislation
                        economic development policies in the          to perform a particular set of public
                        future. States that follow transparency       functions, such as waste management,
                        best practices allow citizens and public      pension administration, or operation
                        officials to hold subsidy recipients ac-      of toll roads or community develop-
                        countable by listing the public benefits      ment programs. The defining feature
                        each company was expected to provide          of a quasi-public agency is that, while
                        in exchange for the subsidy, and the          it is typically governed by a board ap-
                        benefits each company actually deliv-         pointed substantially or entirely by
                        ered, such as the precise number of new       representatives of state government,
                        or retained jobs.21 When governments          it is largely or wholly “off budget.”
                        recapture funds (through so-called            Quasi-public agencies typically collect
                        “clawbacks”) from companies that fail         fees or other revenue, and therefore do
                        to deliver on the agreed-upon public          not rely solely, or often even at all, on
                        benefits, the best websites provide in-       regular appropriations from the legis-
                        formation on the funds recouped.              lature. They have also come to deliver
                                                                      a growing share of public functions.22
                      • Other tax expenditures. “Tax expen-           According to a study by MASSPIRG
                        ditures” are subsidies bestowed through       Education Fund from 2010, revenues
                        the tax code in the form of special tax       from quasi-public agencies in Massa-
                        exemptions, credits, deferments and           chusetts amounted to at least $8.76 bil-
                        preferences. Tax expenditures have the        lion – equal to one third of the state’s
                        same bottom-line impact on state bud-         general budget.23 Since their expendi-
                        gets as direct spending: Every dollar         tures typically are not subject to the
                        must be balanced by increased taxes or        checks and balances of the regular bud-

12   Following the Money 2018
get process and accounts fall outside of      by a variety of government agencies. Few
   the “official” state budget, quasi-public     people already know the range of these
   agencies can lack public accountability,      programs, their official names or which
   making online transparency particu-           agencies’ websites they should search to
   larly important.                              find information about them. Making all
                                                 data about government subsidies reach-
   State officials themselves are typically      able from a single website empowers citi-
   not even aware of how many quasi-             zens to engage in closer scrutiny of spend-
   public agencies exist in a particular         ing supported by their tax dollars.
   state.24 The best practice is to maintain
   a central, public registry of all quasi-      One-Click Searchable
   public entities in a state to facilitate      and Downloadable
   transparency for their budgets. Trans-
   parency websites should include ex-           Transparent information is only as useful
   penditure data for all of these bodies.       as it is accessible. Transparency websites
                                                 in leading states offer a range of search
                                                 and sort functions that allow residents to
                                                 navigate complex expenditure data with a
One-Stop                                         single click of the mouse. States that fol-
Transparency websites in leading states of-      low the best transparency standards allow
fer a single portal from which citizens can      residents to browse information by re-
search all government expenditures, just         cipient, agency or category, and to make
as they would use a single search engine         directed keyword and field searches. The
to access anything on the internet. With         most effective search tools are also multi-
one-stop transparency, residents and pub-        tiered, allowing users to use two or more
lic officials can access comprehensive in-       search criteria at a time to narrow the
formation on direct spending, contracts,         number of results, or allowing users to
tax expenditures and other subsidies             conduct a second search inside the param-
from a single starting point. Expert users       eters of their first.
may already know what they are looking              Citizens who want to dig deeper into
for and may already be familiar with the         government spending patterns typically
kinds of expenditures that fall within spe-      need to download and analyze the data
cific bureaucratic silos. Ordinary citizens,     in a spreadsheet or database program.
however, are more likely to be impeded by        Downloading whole datasets enables
the need to navigate a variety of disparate      citizens to perform a variety of advanced
websites in order to find information on         functions – such as aggregating expen-
government spending.                             ditures for a particular company, agency
   One-stop transparency is particularly         or time period – to see trends or under-
important for public oversight of subsi-         stand total spending amounts that might
dies. Subsidies come in a dizzying variety       otherwise be lost in a sea of data. States
of forms – including direct cash transfers,      should enable citizens to download the
loans, equity investments, contributions         entire checkbook dataset in one file, but
of property or infrastructure, reductions        also allow casual users the ability to view
or deferrals of taxes or fees, guarantees of     state expenditures for at least the most
loans or leases, and preferential use of gov-    recent fiscal year without downloading
ernment facilities – and are administered        any files.

                                                Transparency Websites Empower Citizens to Track Government Spending   13
Usable and Intuitive                             ries, as well as standardizing department
                       In today’s digital world, state websites         and expenditure category descriptions to
                       should aspire to be as usable as the many        eliminate inconsistent abbreviations or
                       other sites with which the average citizen       misspellings that may complicate finding
                       interacts.                                       information. States should also ensure that
                          In addition to features such as a fully       the data available on their websites are ac-
                       functional search bar and hosting an in-         cessible without users having to download
                       site viewing portal for citizens to interact     external programs to view the site, make
                       with data without having to download a           the data easily viewable on mobile devic-
                       file, states can help ensure their websites      es, and include a subtotal feature in their
                       are usable by itemizing spending into            checkbook portal that sums spending by
                       manageable and understandable catego-            department and category.

     State Employee Compensation and Government Transparency

             any states post the salaries of state work-     gests that posting compensation details can un-
             ers online on their transparency web-           dermine employee morale.28 For these reasons,
             sites or elsewhere. There is much debate        states such as Louisiana abstain from posting sal-
     about whether the benefits of this practice out-        ary information on their transparency websites.
     weigh the costs.                                           Delaware offers an example of one approach
        On one hand, opening the books on public-            to navigating between these competing impera-
     sector compensation helps protect against sala-         tives. The state publishes salary ranges by job
     ries that the public might find unacceptable.           title, thereby preserving some measure of ano-
     Additionally, hard data allow for informed de-          nymity while maintaining the ability to identify
     bate about public sector compensation practices.        compensation that might be dramatically out
     Public workers tend to be better compensated, on        of line with experience, qualifications or public
     average, than those in the private sector, but pub-     norms.29 Another way states might navigate the
     lic employees with an advanced degree typically         issue would be to post the salaries of only the
     receive lower salaries than comparably educated         highest compensated employees – such as those
     non-government employees.25 Regardless, there           making more than three times the average state
     can be considerable public interest in salary infor-    employee, the highest paid 10 employees and
     mation. Of 12 states that provided us with a list of    contractors in each department, or the 50 high-
     most visited pages on their transparency websites,      est paid employees in the state.
     nine states, including Rhode Island and Pennsyl-           Ultimately, there is a need for more informa-
     vania, reported the salary page was the most fre-       tion about the relative merits of different ap-
     quently visited one.26 In 2017, the top four most       proaches to transparency in public sector em-
     downloaded files from the New Hampshire site            ployee compensation. One study examined the
     were the four most recent years of salary informa-      effects of a 2010 California mandate requiring
     tion, and Kansas notes the transparency website         cities to publicly post municipal salaries and
     received a considerable boost in traffic when it        found that, compared with cities that already
     first posted compensation information.27                posted such information, newly transparent mu-
        On the other hand, there can be good reasons         nicipalities cut salaries for their highest paid em-
     to limit the scope of personal information in the       ployees and experienced a 75 percent increase in
     public domain. People may use the information           quit rates among those workers.30 Further study
     inappropriately, or it could be abused by mar-          is necessary to know if these findings are repre-
     keters or criminals. Moreover, research sug-            sentative of experiences at other public agencies.

14    Following the Money 2018
Making the Grade: Scoring States’
Online Spending Transparency

       ll 50 states operate websites to make   state’s transparency website. (For a list of
       information on state spending ac-       questions sent to state officials, see Ap-
       cessible to the public and these        pendix C.) Follow up e-mails and phone
web portals continue to improve. For in-       calls were used to maximize the number of
stance, in 2018, all but three states allow    responses we received. Officials from 41
users to search the online checkbook by        states responded with insights and clari-
keyword, and 47 states’ transparency web-      fications about their websites. In some
sites provide information on one or more       cases, our research team adjusted scores
economic development subsidies.31 Many         based on this clarifying feedback. Officials
states are also disclosing information that    were not given the opportunity to com-
is “off budget” and are making it easy for     ment on the results of the Real World
watchdogs and researchers to download          test.
and analyze large datasets about govern-          A state’s grade reflects the entire state
ment spending.                                 government’s performance in providing
   For this, U.S. PIRG’s eighth evalua-        tools and information for citizens to ac-
tion of state online spending transparency     cess spending data through the online
websites, each state’s site was evaluated      transparency portal. The grades do not
and assigned a grade based on its search-      necessarily measure the effort of the of-
ability and the breadth of information         fice that manages the transparency web-
provided. In addition, this year states were   site. Improving transparency may require
graded on the comprehensiveness and us-        other offices or quasi-public agencies to
ability of their websites via a “Real World”   provide information in a usable format,
test. (See Appendix A for a full explanation   additional funding from the state legisla-
of the grading methodology and how the         ture, or changes to laws and regulations
scoring system was applied to each state’s     outside the control of the managing of-
website, and Appendix B for the complete       fice. Best practices in spending transpar-
scorecard.) An initial inventory of each       ency typically require collaboration from
state’s website and a set of questions were    several parts of state government. The
first sent to the administrative offices be-   grades in this report score the success of
lieved to be responsible for operating each    that collaboration.

                                                    Making the Grade: Scoring States’ Online Spending Transparency   15
Based on the grades assigned to each             ing States. The following sections sum-
                       website, states can be divided into five cat-      marize common traits shared by the states
                       egories: Leading States, Advancing States,         in each of these categories to highlight
                       Middling States, Lagging States and Fail-          their strengths and weaknesses.

     Criteria Changes for 2018

          tates have made great progress in expanding             halved from its 2016 total to 12 points. Simi-
          citizen access to spending transparency data            larly, each of the searchability criteria point to-
          since the first Following the Money report in           tals have been halved and now are worth four
     2010. In 2010, 14 states didn’t have any kind of             points each; downloadability has dropped two
     government transparency website at all, and only             points to now account for four points total.
     32 states provided some kind of checkbook-level
     spending record online; only three years later,          • The “Real World” test is entirely new this year
     every state had a transparency website and all             and accounts for 18 points. The ability of
     hosted a checkbook. The number of states de-               researchers to find each of the six expendi-
     tailing the projected benefits of economic devel-          tures in the state’s checkbook was worth three
     opment subsidies rose from 18 in 2013 to 38 in             points each. (See Appendix A for a full expla-
     2014.                                                      nation of the grading methodology and how
        At the same time, however, citizens’ expecta-           the scoring system was applied to each state’s
     tions of the type of financial information that            website.)
     should be made available online, and the ease
     with which it should be accessed, have increased.        • Usability features were added to the grading
     To keep up with those rising expectations, each            criteria this year. This evaluated the presence
     edition of Following the Money has raised the              of two specific features in the online check-
     bar for what counts as a “Leading” state web-              book – a multi-tiered search function and a
     site, adding criteria for new features and types of        subtotaling feature – worth three points each.
     information and reducing the amount of credit              (See Appendix A for more information.) In
     given for information that is now provided as a            addition, the usability criteria included the
     matter of course by most states.                           presence of a citizen-accessible report on a
        As a result of this tightening of criteria, the         state’s transparency website. As described by
     scores received by states in successive editions of        the Association for Government Accountants
     Following the Money are not strictly comparable.           and the Government Finance Officers As-
     Indeed, some states may experience a decline in            sociation, this criterion graded states on the
     their scores from year to year even if their web-          posting of simplified financial statements in-
     sites have improved overall.                               tended for citizen use. (See page 30 for more
       Notable changes in the grading standards for
     the 2018 Following the Money report include:             • The value of the checkbook-level criterion
                                                                for economic development subsidies dropped
     • The number of points allocated for host-                 three points from 2016 and is now worth 12
       ing a checkbook-level spending record has been           points.

16    Following the Money 2018
Leading “A” States                               grams, and all eight make the information
                                                 downloadable for offline analysis. The top
Table 2. Leading States
                                                 four Leading States – Ohio, West Virginia,
 State              Grade    Score     Rank      Minnesota and Wisconsin – all also provide
                                                 information on projected economic benefits
 Ohio                 A+       98      1 (tie)
                                                 for every program considered.
 West Virginia        A+       98      1 (tie)     Leading States still have opportunities
 Minnesota            A        94      3 (tie)   to improve transparency. For example, re-
 Wisconsin            A        94      3 (tie)   searchers in our focus groups were unable
 Arizona              A-       93      5 (tie)
                                                 to locate at least one of the six expendi-
                                                 tures on the Wisconsin, Arizona, Con-
 Connecticut          A-       93      5 (tie)
                                                 necticut and Louisiana websites. Three
 Iowa                 A-       91        7       of the Leading States – Wisconsin, Con-
 Louisiana            A-       90        8       necticut and Iowa – do not currently of-
                                                 fer citizen-accessible financial reports on
This year, eight states received leading         their websites, and Minnesota and Arizo-
scores. These states have created user-          na reported actual public benefits for only
friendly websites that provide visitors with     one of the evaluated economic develop-
accessible information on state spending.        ment subsidy programs.
Citizens can find information on specific
expenditures through easy-to-use features,
such as a subtotaling function, providing us-
ers with an automatically generated annual       Advancing “B” States
sum by department and specific expenditure
category, saving site visitors from having to    Table 3. Advancing States
add up individual amounts for themselves.
                                                  State               Grade     Score      Rank
All of the Leading States except Louisiana
also offer a multi-tiered search function, al-    South Carolina        B+        87         9
lowing users to search by department and          Kentucky               B        85      10 (tie)
expenditure category simultaneously, or to        Nevada                 B        85      10 (tie)
conduct a second search inside the param-
                                                  Illinois               B        84        12
eters of their first search.
   While the online checkbooks in these           Indiana                B        83        13
states do not include all types of state          Arkansas               B-       82      14 (tie)
spending – either because of limitations in       Texas                  B-       82      14 (tie)
the states’ accounting systems or privacy         Oregon                 B-       81        16
rules – all eight of these states provide at
                                                  Delaware               B-       80      17 (tie)
least some information on the nature of
data exclusions, allowing users to under-         Massachusetts          B-       80      17 (tie)
stand why they might not be able to find          Nebraska               B-       80      17 (tie)
particular information.
   Leading States also provide visitors with     This year, 11 states are “Advancing” in
recipient-specific information on subsidy        online spending transparency, with spend-
awards. All Leading States provide informa-      ing information that is easy to access but
tion on the value of the subsidies received by   more limited than that of Leading States.
companies through three of that state’s more       Advancing States have checkbooks that
significant and currently active subsidy pro-    are downloadable as well as searchable by

                                                       Making the Grade: Scoring States’ Online Spending Transparency   17
Table 4. Middling States
                      recipient, keyword and agency. With the
                      exception of Delaware, all also post an          State             Grade   Score    Rank
                      exclusions statement on their website, let-
                                                                       Colorado           C+       78    20 (tie)
                      ting users know the types of information
                                                                       Michigan           C+       78    20 (tie)
                      that are missing from the checkbook. Ten
                      of the 11 Advancing States feature a subto-      New York           C+       78    20 (tie)
                      taling function in their checkbook portals,      Utah               C+       78    20 (tie)
                      allowing users to view amount totals for         Florida            C+       76    24 (tie)
                      certain expenditures quickly and without
                                                                       North Carolina     C+       76    24 (tie)
                      manual addition, and in all 10 checkbooks,
                      researchers were able to find at least three     New Mexico         C+       75       26
                      of the test Real World expenditures, with        Virginia            C       74       27
                      Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas            Kansas              C       73    28 (tie)
                      being the only states of all 50 to receive       New Hampshire       C       73    28 (tie)
                      full points for the Real World portion of
                                                                       Pennsylvania        C       73    28 (tie)
                      the evaluation. In addition, all of the Ad-
                      vancing states offer the most recent tax         South Dakota        C       72       31
                      expenditure reports on their websites, and       Washington          C       71       32
                      host checkbook-level recipient informa-          Montana             C-      69       33
                      tion for at least two of the evaluated eco-      North Dakota        C-      68       34
                      nomic development subsidies.
                                                                       New Jersey          C-      67    35 (tie)
                         Only five of the Advancing States – Ken-
                      tucky, Indiana, Delaware, Massachusetts          Vermont             C-      67    35 (tie)
                      and Oregon – offer a multi-tiered search
                      function, saving users time in looking for
                      specific expenditure information. In ad-        Florida, South Dakota, Montana and Ver-
                      dition, only six states – South Carolina,       mont – do not include a subtotaling func-
                      Nevada, Illinois, Texas, Oregon and Ne-         tion. All of the states except Pennsylvania
                      braska – post a citizen-accessible financial    allow users to download all or part of the
                      report on their website, a feature the other    checkbook data, and all except New Jersey
                      five Advancing States should incorporate.       include a statement about excluded ex-
                                                                      penditures. Just over half of the Middling
                                                                      States include a multi-tiered search func-
                                                                      tion in their online checkbooks.
                      Middling “C” States                               The information provided on subsidies
                                                                      in Middling States tends to be more limit-
                      This year, 17 states are “Middling” in          ed than the subsidy information provided
                      online spending transparency. The on-           by Leading and Advancing States. While
                      line checkbooks in Middling States cover        all of the states included checkbook-level
                      a wide range of spending. Their basic           spending data on at least one of the evalu-
                      checkbooks have the same search func-           ated subsidy programs, six of the Middling
                      tionality as those in Leading and Advanc-       States did not provide projected benefits
                      ing States, with the exception of Virginia’s,   information for the three programs, and
                      which is not searchable by keyword, and         11 did not post information on actual ben-
                      only five of the Middling States – Utah,        efits.

18   Following the Money 2018
Lagging “D” States                              Failing “F” States
Table 5. Lagging States                         Table 6. Failing States

 State             Grade    Score     Rank       State              Grade     Score      Rank
 Maryland            D+       63     37 (tie)    Hawaii                F        48        47
 Mississippi         D+       63     37 (tie)    California            F        47        48
 Maine               D+       62     39 (tie)    Alaska                F        46        49
 Missouri            D+       62     39 (tie)    Wyoming               F        35        50
 Oklahoma            D+       60       41
                                                This year, four states receive a fail-
 Idaho                D       58       42
                                                ing grade reflecting their failure to fol-
 Georgia              D       57       43       low many of the best practices of online
 Alabama              D       56       44       spending transparency. Wyoming’s online
 Rhode Island         D       55       45       checkbook fails to provide a functional
                                                search feature, while the most current year
 Tennessee           D-       54       46
                                                of data available on Hawaii’s checkbook is
Checkbook-level spending in the ten Lag-        2016. While the state of California does
ging States is less accessible or complete      publish tax expenditure reports, these are
than checkbook-level spending in other          not included on the state’s transparency
states. Four states – Idaho, Georgia, Ala-      website, making this information more
bama and Rhode Island – only make a por-        difficult for users to locate than if all state
tion of their checkbook downloadable for        financial data were hosted in one central
offline analysis. Only two states – Georgia     place.
and Tennessee – include a multi-tiered
search function in their online checkbooks,
while the only checkbooks with a subtotal-
ing function are those of Maine, Missouri
and Alabama. Researchers were unable to
locate any of the six Real World expendi-
                                                    Members of Both Parties Support
tures in the checkbooks of Rhode Island,            Government Transparency

Maryland and Mississippi, as none of these               he political leaning of a state provides little indica-
state’s checkbooks provide a useful level of             tion of its level of transparency. Neither Repub-
itemization to determine exact expendi-                  lican-leaning states nor Democratic-leaning states
tures on line items for specific departments.       are significantly more transparent than the other. States
   While six states – Maryland, Missis-             with a Democratic governor averaged a transparency
sippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee                score of 73 in our study – near the average score of
and Rhode Island – hosted checkbook-                states with Republican governors (74). The average
level spending information for the three            transparency score of states with single-party, Repub-
subsidy programs evaluated in this report,          lican legislatures (75) was modestly higher than those
no state posted both projected and actual           with single-party, Democratic legislatures (71). Of the
benefits for all three programs. Only four          eight A-level states, five have a Republican governor
states – Maryland, Mississippi, Idaho and           while three have a Democratic governor, a partisan ra-
Tennessee – posted any benefits infor-              tio near that of the nation’s governors in general (33
mation for at least one subsidy program,            Republicans, 16 Democrats and 1 Independent).
while the other six offered no benefits in-
formation at all.

                                                     Making the Grade: Scoring States’ Online Spending Transparency   19
What Makes a Transparency Website
                      Usable?: Feedback from the Focus Groups

                                                                        Features of the Most

                           tates have started to prioritize user-
                           friendliness and accessibility in their      Usable Websites
                           transparency portals. Some state web-        Citizens have come to expect information
                      sites, however, lack basic features that us-      hosted online to be accompanied by com-
                      ers have come to expect from an online            prehensive search functions, such as in-
                      experience. While evaluating states on the        tuitive “Google-style” search bars. States
                      six test expenditures, our research team          such as Ohio host this particular function,
                      identified site features that served to en-       making their sites approachable and in-
                      hance the user experience, and opportuni-         stantly understandable for citizens; as one
                      ties for states to improve.                       researcher commented of Ohio, “this site
                                                                        is so beautiful and easy to use!”
                                                                            A multi-tiered search function also
                                                                        serves to make sites easier to use by al-
                      Search Bars and Other                             lowing users to search by department and
                                                                        expenditure category simultaneously, or
                      Searchability Functions                           to conduct a second search inside the pa-
                      Information provided online is only as use-       rameters of their first search. These fea-
                      ful as it is easy to navigate. Search functions   tures allow users to narrow the number
                      are particularly important in ensuring that       of results they must sift through to find
                      citizens can locate information quickly.          information. Currently, 24 state check-

                      Figure 1. Delaware Offers a “Common Questions” Feature by the Search Function

20   Following the Money 2018
books, including New York, Michigan               descriptions of individual state expendi-
and California, host a multi-tiered search        tures that are reasonably itemized, and to
function.32                                       sum them so users don’t have to add the
  Some states such as Ohio, Delaware              total of every individual check with “trav-
and Illinois also provide a “most com-            el” in the memo line to know how much
mon searches” feature, allowing citizens          was spent in that category.
with those questions to access informa-
tion quickly, while providing information         Features of the Most
regarding popular uses of websites for re-        Usable Websites
searchers. (See Figure 1.)
                                                  Almost all state checkbooks provide some
Weaknesses of the Least                           level of itemization of state expenditures.
Usable Websites                                   More than half of state checkbooks also
                                                  include the automatic generation of sub-
Some states that host a multi-tiered search       totals for spending by department or ex-
function make it difficult for users to find      penditure category; currently, 34 states
and use. Minnesota’s website, for example,        host this feature, including Alabama,
offers users five search options, only one        South Carolina and Indiana.
of which eventually allows for further re-
finement within the search term.                  Weaknesses of the Least
   Some states, however, fall short of pro-       Usable Websites
viding a fully functional search feature.
Wyoming, for instance, requires users to          While almost all state checkbooks provide
search by vendor name before being able           some level of itemization by expenditure
to access any other expenditure informa-          type, not all states do so in a way that en-
tion. North Carolina similarly requires           hances the experience of using the online
users to search by fund first, forcing citi-      checkbook. Some states only provide users
zens to use a search criterion with which         with relatively broad expenditure descrip-
they are likely to be less familiar than          tions; any user trying to find how much
more common pieces of information such            a department in Washington state spent
as an agency or department name. Other            on office supplies would only be able to
states lack a search function altogether,         get as specific as the category “Goods and
such as Missouri, which only offers users         Services.” Similarly, the Rhode Island site
lists of categories and no search bar to sort     prompted one focus group researcher to
through the information.                          remark, “There is nothing breaking down
                                                  the operating costs into smaller categories
                                                  – all there is is a really long list of vendors,
                                                  and no way to know what they received
Expenditures: Itemization,                        payments for.”
                                                    However, our researchers also found
Descriptions, and Subtotals                       there is such a thing as categories that
  If a curious citizen wants to know how          are too specific. Florida’s general search
much her governor spent on travel last            function only allows users to search by
year, having a state checkbook with clear         broad expenditure types, while the ad-
expenditure descriptions is essential. For a      vanced search function provides users
transparency website to be usable, check-         with a level of category detail so overly
books need to provide users with intuitive        specific as to render the site all but unus-

                                           What Makes a Transparency Website Usable?: Feedback from the Focus Groups   21
You can also read
Next slide ... Cancel