Frontier Group


Bringing budget transparency to New Jersey cities

Not one of New Jersey's biggest cities has a modern, searchable and sortable budget website to allow easy access to checkbook-level municipal spending data. 

Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

It’s 2016, and the web is filled with cool and useful data. Go to your bank website, and you can see a list of all your debit charges, get check images, and see your annual interest. My fantasy football website has more information on every player in the league than I could ever care to know, and of course it’s all searchable and sortable (this year it should be enough to help me barely miss the playoffs). As a policy analyst I spend lots of my time digging through U.S. energy data websites, where I can create instant graphs of solar generation trends for renewable energy research.

In other words, modern online tools are making it easier to use and respond to data, whether I’m managing my bank account, doing research for my job, or just trying to win fantasy football games.

Increasingly, these same kinds of tools are also available for looking at public spending. Today, you can visit the website for just about any state budget department, and get advanced tools for analyzing and finding state spending data. These websites are important. They help regular citizens keep tabs on elected officials, make government more transparent and more accountable, and further citizen participation in our democracy. Here at Frontier Group we’ve been tracking the spread of state budget websites since 2010 through our annual Following the Money reports, including the latest in 2016.

But while most states are now meeting 21st century standards of spending transparency, many cities and towns still have catching up to do. For our report released last week, Following the Money in New Jersey Cities (produced with NJPIRG Student Chapters), we surveyed the budget websites for the 15 biggest municipalities in New Jersey, and what we found was not pretty: Not one of those cities has a modern, searchable and sortable budget website to allow easy access to checkbook-level municipal spending data. If you want to see how your city is spending its money, get ready to dig through hard-to-read scanned PDFs. Want to find information on vendor contracts or tax breaks given to local businesses? Get ready for an in-person trip to the local town hall and a day at the office copier. In general, the websites look a lot like what you’d expect to see in the 1990s, not 2016.

New Jersey cities are not the only ones that are failing to give their citizens ready access to critical information about how taxpayer money is spent. Although some of America’s biggest cities, like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, are doing a good job of presenting modern access to budget information, the vast majority of American cities and towns are not. Nevertheless, it’s time to start doing better. As we cover in our new report, even small towns like 5,600-person Wellston, Ohio, have entered the modern era of online transparency. And implementing modern websites can be relatively cheap and easy, with benefits and savings that far outweigh the costs.

Still, adopting modern online technology isn’t the easiest thing for a city to do on its own. Wellston’s  transparency website, for example, is hosted on, a state-run site that offers transparency technology to any state municipality that wants to take advantage of it. New Jersey, and every other state, should offer the same services to their cities. For New Jersey residents – who have long demanded more accountability from their public officials – these upgrades could go a long way toward bringing about the effective local government that they deserve. 


Gideon Weissman

Former Policy Analyst, Frontier Group