State governments spend hundreds of billions of dollars each year on everything from employee salaries and office supplies to professional lawyers and subsidies to encourage economic development. Public accountability helps ensure that state funds are spent wisely.
State-operated transparency websites provide checkbook-level detail on government spending, allowing citizens and watchdog groups to view payments made to individual companies, details on purchased goods or services, and benefits obtained in exchange for public subsidies.
All 50 states now operate websites to make information on state expenditures accessible to the public. All but four states provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs and more than half of states make that subsidy data available for researchers to download and analyze. These websites not only provide citizens with useful information, they are regularly used by citizens; in 2017 alone, at least 1.5 million users viewed over 8.7 million pages on state transparency websites.
However, this analysis – U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s eighth evaluation of state transparency websites – finds that despite continued improvements in transparency websites, states still have a long way to go in making critical data about state spending truly accessible to the public. (See Figure ES-1 and Table ES-1.) State governments should follow the example set by the nation’s “Leading States” in enabling their residents to “follow the money” on state spending.
Figure ES-1. How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
Table ES-1: Top 10 and Bottom 10 States in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
|Top 10 States||Bottom 10 States|
|West Virginia||A+||98||1 (tie)||Alaska||F||46||49|
|Connecticut||A-||93||5 (tie)||Rhode Island||D||55||45|
|Confirmations of Findings with State Officials
Our researchers sent initial assessments and a list of questions to transparency website officials in all 50 states in order to ensure that the information presented in this report is accurate and up to date.
For the majority of the grades, state transparency officials were given the opportunity to verify information, clarify their online features, and discuss the benefits of transparency best practices in their states. Of the 50 states, officials from 41 states provided feedback. For a list of the questions posed to state officials, please see Appendix C.
Due to the nature of the new “Real World” test – in which states were graded on the ability of a reviewer to find information on a state website within a given period of time – states were not offered the ability to review the results of that portion of the evaluation. States were alerted to the purpose of and methods to be used in the Real World evaluation during our initial contact with them in winter 2018.
Eight states, led by Ohio and West Virginia, are leading in spending transparency, setting an example for other states nationwide.
Many states have a long way to go in providing comprehensive information that is accessible to the public. In order to grade state transparency websites on their comprehensiveness and usability, 27 professional and amateur researchers participated in our focus groups, looking for six specific expenditures on state sites and evaluating how easily they were able to find and understand the information. Many websites failed to match the user-friendliness and intuitiveness common to Americans’ everyday experience of the Internet.
All states, including Leading States, have opportunities to improve their transparency.
Table ES-2: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data