The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Spending transparency checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.
Wisconsin’s online government spending websites – Contract Sunshine and a separate online portal to the annual economic development programs report – are disappointingly incomplete. Wisconsin has a very long way to go to match the spending transparency efforts of leading states such as Illinois and Minnesota in the movement toward “Transparency 2.0” – a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.
With the state in the midst of a budget crisis, it’s especially important for Wisconsinites to have easy access to information about the state’s expenditures. Wisconsin should provide comprehensive data on government spending and subsidies, and bring its online transparency up to speed. Doing so will create savings and will allow Wisconsinites to hold decision makers in Madison more accountable.
The movement toward Transparency 2.0 is broad, bipartisan, and popular.
- A nationwide wave – Legislation and executive orders in 32 states have been implemented to give residents access to online databases of detailed government expenditures, and the federal government has launched similar initiatives. The vast majority of these states have acted over just the last three years.
- Bipartisan efforts – Transparency legislation has been championed by legislators both Republican and Democratic. Wisconsin’s Legislature unanimously approved legislation requiring greater transparency for Wisconsin’s economic development programs in 2007. In 2008, federal legislation to strengthen Web-based spending transparency was co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by presidential rivals John McCain (R-AZ) and Barack Obama (D-IL).
- Public support – Republicans, independents and Democrats all support enhanced government transparency by wide margins. When asked about the role of transparency in the federal economic recovery package of early 2009, fully 75 percent of American voters said creating state level websites to track funds was “important,” and 34 percent said it was “very important.”
Transparency 2.0 saves money and bolsters citizen confidence.
- Increased civic engagement – Americans are eager to use transparency websites. The Missouri Accountability Portal received more than 6 million hits in the year after its launch.
- Big savings – Transparency websites can save millions through more efficient government operations, fewer information requests, more competitive contracting bids, and lower risk of fraud. In the two years following the launch of its transparency website, the Texas Comptroller reported $4.8 million in savings from more efficient government administration. Utah estimates $15,000 in annual savings from reduced information requests. The largest savings may come from the deterrence of waste or abuse of public funds due to enhanced public scrutiny – savings that are impossible to quantify but likely significant.
- Better-targeted incentives – Transparency budget portals allow states to track how well economic development credits and other subsidies deliver results. Funds from underperforming projects and programs can be reinvested in more successful programs. By tracking the performance of state subsidies, Minnesota and Illinois have both been able to recapture money from numerous projects that failed to deliver promised results.
- Better coordination of government contracts – The Massachusetts State Purchasing Agent identifies four sources of savings for state procurement officers: sharing information with other public purchasers on good deals; avoiding wasteful duplication of bidding and contracting procedures through centralized processes; better enforcement of favorable pricing and contract terms; and focusing cost-cutting in areas where greater resources are spent.
Wisconsin’s contracting and subsidy transparency websites have major deficiencies.
- First steps into Transparency 2.0 – Wisconsin has established two websites that provide basic data on state contracts and on economic development subsidies that give residents access to crucial government accountability information. State contracts are searchable by department, vendor, and product or service. Economic development grants can be searched by recipient, county, award type, and other criteria.
- Many contracts are missing – Not all state agencies that are required to post their expenditures of $10,000 or more have actually done so. In March 2010, the 14 agencies that had posted data supplied information about contracts worth $1.19 billion, out of the state’s total two-year budget of $66 billion.
- Comprehensive information on contracts and subsidies is unavailable – The Contract Sunshine website does not include a copy of each contract or information on the competing bids received for each contract. The description of results promised by recipients of economic development assistance often is incomplete. This information must be included so that the public can determine if the contracts and subsidies represent an efficient use of government funds.
- Transparency information is not centrally located – Wisconsin’s contracting and economic development subsidy websites are not linked to each other. This reduces the ability of citizens who do not already know what they are looking for and where to find it to effectively monitor government spending and find important information.
Wisconsin should make its online transparency information comprehensive, bringing it up to the best practices established by other Transparency 2.0 states.
- Include spending from all agencies – The state should require all agencies to report expenditures on the transparency website, and specify penalties for noncompliant agencies. There should be no minimum dollar amount for required reporting.
- Include comprehensive information on government contracts – A comprehensive transparency website should not only provide copies of government contracts, but it should also offer more detailed information that would allow citizens to fully monitor the contracting process, such as providing information on other bids received, and noting whether subcontractors were employed.
- Include information on all government spending – Wisconsin should post information on non-contract spending, including discretionary spending, and how that compares to the state’s budget.
- Provide details about the promised and received benefits of economic development assistance – Wisconsin should post full details about how many jobs companies promise to create with economic development monies or tax breaks. The pay and benefits of those promised jobs should be posted, along with information on what jobs actually were created.
- Provide accountability information on one website – Wisconsin should ensure that all government spending information is provided on a central website.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her son.