One of the incentives of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA, was to utilize technology to create more transparency in government expenditures, a move that would better inform citizens about who was spending what, and where.
With the help of solution providers, vendors and other partners, state governments are independently working toward that goal with varying amounts of progress. Three of them highlighted their success Monday during a panel session at the National State CIO (NASCIO) Conference in Austin, Texas.
During the panel, an informal poll of state IT executives found that 58 percent of respondents have a statewide transparency project underway, while another 27 percent said they had more limited projects with at least some government agencies.
Another question asked was about the primary purpose of the transparency initiative, to which 33 percent said it was because the governor or legislature mandated it, 31 percent said it was to better report ARRA, and 30 percent said it was to engage citizens in interaction with government agencies.
"This [poll] tells me there are expectations among policy makers. They are encouraging states to go forward," said Thom Rubel, director of government programs at IDC Government Insights, and moderator of the panel. "As we work through all this, the transparency challenges will become relevant."
Rubel said the biggest challenge he sees for states is to create relevancy out of the data, or "how to get the most out of our transparency."
Tim Robyn, Missouri deputy CIO for Web presence, illustrated how his state has tried to become more transparent to its residents by creating the Missouri Accountability Portal (MAP), where Internet users can access expenditures, including salaries for 60,000 state employees.
"It's a historical record of financial transactions to provide state agency expenditures, tax credits and it tracks the flow of stimulus funds," Robyn said. "In 2008, the State of Missouri spent $2.1 billion on payroll. The average citizen can see we spend the most money on social service programs and education."
Robyn noted that easy-to-read bar charts illustrate that within social services, Missouri spent the most money on program distribution, in which the departments of corrections and mental health spent the most money on payroll.
The portal also includes such details as how much was spent at a specific bra shop for women's inmate clothing and how much tax credit the state gave to the Kansas City Chiefs football team, Robyn demonstrated.
"It allows citizens to question us and hold us accountable," he said. "It's been a tremendous asset to the state and it's updated every business day."
Victor Gonzalez, Texas director of innovation and CTO, Office of the Comptroller of Public Accounts, noted that his state started a transparency project long before ARRA was introduced. In January 2007, Texas started to put its expenditures online in Excel format and less than a year later it had a robust, searchable system.
"It tracks $110 billion of spend in this system. You can search by code. Art supplies, you can see we spent $5,000, for example," Gonzalez said.
Texas' system also includes a comparison of the budget to actual expenditures, Gonzalez said.
"How'd we do it? We had summary level transactions from the state agencies and we leveraged a larger business intelligence project. We used Business Objects software and SQL Server database. We started out small and expanded. We always kept in mind the ultimate vision, to get to a searchable database," Gonzalez said.
The next step, he added, was to work with local and county governments on transparency, which likely will be an enormous technological challenge because data is not always collected in a unified format. In addition, states have to look at how to present the data in a relevant manner, he added.
"The big thing is to focus and expand the solution based on the audience -- the public, the media, researchers and government," he said. "If we put too much information for the public, they won't come because it's too overwhelming. But researchers say it's not enough information. We try to strike a balance between all user groups."
In Maryland, the state has created StateStat, a portal where users can go to get state spending information in a detailed and graphical format that also spells out where the spending occurs geographically, said Beth Blauer, Maryland director of the Governor's StateStat Office.
StateStat is used by state employees, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, to identify spending trends and where problems may exist, Blauer said.
"StateState is a management tool, but there's an increasing desire to turn it into a transparency tool. That's been amplified by the Obama administration. At the end of month, all data was made public on the Recovery.gov site, but we believe this is not a one-time occurrence. We're trying to prepare the state for what will be required going forward," she said.
Maryland also has a comments section where residents can offer feedback on the data. "We're looking for the public to help us shape what we do next," Blauer said.
The ultimate goal of IT projects to make government more transparent is to improve the performance of government programs, said IDC's Rubel.
He asked the audience what type of information they believe is most valuable to citizens. More than half selected program performance outcomes. In addition, he asked the crowd what would be the biggest impact transparency would have on government. Thirty-nine percent said program performance will improve and 36 percent indicated money will be spent more efficiently.