Something small but important happened in Washington state last week. It didn’t rock the airwaves, there were no eye witness reports, and it wasn’t featured on any evening news shows. But it was still significant. Significant because it made a little bit of America a little more democratic.
Last week, Washington state debuted its online checkbook, joining an ever-growing movement, called Transparency 2.0, of states giving their citizens the ability to monitor many aspects of state spending. Citizens of the Evergreen state can now easily see exactly how their government spends tax payer dollars: which department is paying which company for what goods and services, and exactly how much those goods and services are costing.
Posting information on the payments made to vendors is a smart choice for Washington. Other states with online checkbooks have reported a wide range of benefits – from saving money (e.g. Texas reported receiving lower bids for contracts after making contracting information available to the public) to supporting public policy goals (e.g. community investment and affirmative action goals). At a time when Washington is facing continual budget cuts, the state only stands to benefit from the savings that will likely result from online checkbook.
But checkbook’s debut is important for a deeper reason – it’s intrinsic to our democracy. Decisions made by elected officials should mirror the wants and desires of their constituents, and there are few government decisions people care more about than what happens to their tax dollars. Simply put, the online checkbook, by giving citizens the knowledge to comment on government spending, will hold decision makers more accountable to the citizens of Washington.
The online checkbook was not easy to make available – the site’s officials needed to develop a system to weed out information (such as personal health information) deemed private (and understandably so) by federal law. Although developing this system took more than a year, they were in the end successful and Washington is today more open and democratic.
Although Washington has been able to make their checkbook available online and join the Transparency 2.0 movement, a few states have yet to do so. As of last year’s count, there were nine other states that had yet to make their spending information available. These states should follow Washington's example, overcome the barriers that block online transparency, and make their transparency websites checkbook-level.
And a small congratulatory note: in last year’s Following the Money report, which assessed state’s Transparency 2.0 websites, Washington received an F grade because their site was not checkbook-level. In this year’s Following the Moneyreport, to be released in March, Washington will receive a passing grade because of this significant step toward greater government transparency.
Congratulations to Washington.