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Towards Texas Transparency

I’m at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin today. There’s a conference on financial transparency in Texas, featuring some excellent student work on making Texas’s finances on the local and state level more open and accessible.

The students presenting work offer an excellent model for how a state might pursue financial transparency. They suggest that:
– Data must be public, which equals being online
– The release of that data must be timely and user-friendly, which means accessible formats
– Data needs to follow the money, to allow citizens to monitor all aspects of allocation and spending
– Tranparent information must lead towards public participation

They offer these proposed payoffs to this sort of transparency:
– Efficiency – having data open and online means more efficient inter- and intra-agency cooperation
– Innovation – open data means that independent individuals, organizations and groups can use, remix and reformat in interesting ways
– Increased accountability, as citizens can review
– Increased participation – citizens can become more involved in government decisions through access to this data

The students propose centralizing information that’s scattered across dozens of existing websites into a one-stop shop, analagous to Alabama’s Open.Alabama.Gov site. This site could also make it possible to map spending, like Maryland’s site tracking the stimulus. It would include information in .CSV format, as the Texas comptroller’s office is currently doing.

They recognize the need to move beyond releasing data to energizing the community, and reference Sunlight Foundation‘s model that identifies a wide range of groups who could get energized by access to information. But they believe that there’s a need for educating the public, using something like North Carolina’s Budgeting 101 website, letting citizens understand the basics of how the budget works.

It’s not enough to do this work at the state level, the students argue. It needs to happen at the local level, with local governments publishing budgets, check registers and financial reports. The fight now is about formats – it’s not sufficient to release this as PDFs – it needs to be in sortable, searchable data. And not every group is equally open – while the Texas legislature is quite open, the appropriations process is not – the students recommend opening a set of appropriations documents, including the markup and decision documents, acknowledging the difficulty of releasing documents that are changing in real-time as negotiations take place.

They suggest that governments face four main challenges:
– The difficulty of working with outdated, incompatible software
– Limits to technical, financial and human resources capacity
– The perception that there’s risk from citizens misunderstanding the data released
– The lack of incentives and requirements to force governments to participate in this process

In the hopes of making this easier, the students are working with the UT Computer Science department to build a template that local governments could use to release their information. It’s encouraging to see such in-depth thinking about both the mechanics of and rationale for opening government financial data – here’s hoping the students are able to have an influence on the future of this movement within Texas.

It’s likely that these LBJ school students will have an ally in Victor Gonzales, the CTO for the Comptroller of Public Accounts. Gonzales explains the role of the comptrollers office – it’s the state’s monitor of revenue and spending, and the state’s purchaser. It’s also the main accountant for the state, and processes over a hundred billion dollars in checks and electronic fund transfers. As such, they’re very well positioned to provide a window into the state’s finances.

Gonzales has been building systems that allow citizens, groups and legislators track expenditure, drilling down to the check register level by agency, payee and object of expense. Putting this information online has already led to $10 million in savings – he gives the example of discovering how much money the state was spending on copier toner, and deciding to negotiate a new contract to get a better deal from a central supplier.

His principle in building these systems – start small and keep them simple. When he took the position, his first question was “what could we do by the end of the week?” Turned out, they were able to release information from their own shop and set a precedent for the rest of the government. The project is no longer so simple – it’s quite powerful, with a site called “Where the Money Goes“, which allows deep exploration of government spending, and will soon be complemented with a site called “Where the Money Comes From”.

He closes with a great story: looking at accounts published online, the comptroller’s office discovered that a government department had bought a goat. For a little while, they worried that someone was eating cabrito for lunch at government expense. Turns out the goat was for scientific research. Score another victory for transparency.