Report: State transparency website should be easier to use

Source: 
Associated Press
Steve Leblanc

Massachusetts is slipping when it comes to making it easy for residents to see how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s according to a report released this week by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, which gave the state a B-minus for its government spending transparency website , known as the Commonwealth’s Financial Records Transparency Platform - or CTHRU for short.

Since 2012 Massachusetts has received either an A or A-minus from the group in similar reports.

In the new report researchers said they looked not only at what information was made available, but also at how easy it was to answer specific questions.

The top websites were those deemed the most user-friendly by providing visitors with accessible and comprehensive information on state spending through easy-to-use features, including letting users search for two or more criteria at once.

The websites - which typically include checkbook-level detail on government spending like the salaries of state workers and the spending levels of various state agencies - are popular, and not just with reporters or advocacy groups.

The report found that the websites were used by 1.5 million users nationwide in 2017 to view over 8.7 million pages.

When it comes to being easy to navigate, Massachusetts’ website is falling behind the top websites in the country, according to the group.

“Massachusetts has for many years led the country in making their state spending data available online. However, as technology and information improve so do our expectations,” Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group spokeswoman Deirdre Cummings said.

The lower grade came in part because for the first time MASSPIRG tested the websites on focus groups to see how well ordinary individuals could navigate them. Most states’ grades dropped as a result.

State comptroller Thomas Shack, who oversees the website in Massachusetts, said the report didn’t make sense to him.

He said that his office has replaced the state’s outdated public accountability website - known as Open Checkbook - with a newer version that is compatible with every operating system, every browser and every mobile system. The old website had become inaccessible to many operating systems even before the earlier report, he said.

“How is it possible to go from an A, expand the transparency geometrically of Massachusetts, to a B-minus?” Shack said. “It doesn’t sound either practical, probable or likely to me. That would indicate that there might be a problem in the compilation process.”

Shack also pointed to a report by the Center for Data Innovation - which describes itself as a think tank studying the intersection of data, technology, and public policy - that found Massachusetts tops in the nation for overall data innovation in 2017.

Cummings acknowledged that Massachusetts, under the comptroller’s office, took an important step in shifting to new the website, but said the scores were based in part on the experience of regular people using the website.

As part of the report, she said, individuals were asked to try to find the question to common questions - such as how much the governor’s office spent on travel or how much the state tourism board spent on advertising - to try to measure how easily the information could be found.

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