There’s an increasing amount of information available online about what state government is doing.
Open data advocates want more. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports.
Ohiocheckbook.com has been online for several months – featuring seven fiscal years of state spending, a total of $408 billion, accessorized by great graphics and cool color charts. And it’s searchable – for instance, by agency or by vendor. Treasurer Josh Mandel says his office was able to do this because the state is on one uniform accounting system. Now he’s asked cities, counties, townships and school districts to join in, but he admits that creates a huge challenge.
“With the local governments, you’ve got roughly 4,000 of them, and they’re on hundreds of different accounting systems,” Mandel said. “Some of the larger local governments and school districts are on very advanced, intricate accounting systems. And some of the smaller townships still do some of their accounting on legal pads, and everything in between.”
Mandel is hoping to have the first local government data on ohiocheckbook.com this summer, and admits it will be a while to get everything online, especially if most local governments sign up – which is what he says he’s hoping to get, without spending a lot of time and money to make it happen.
“We don’t have to get to 3,900 to get to 3,900,” said Mandel. “I think we need to get to a tipping point, and at a certain tipping point, it will become uncomfortable for certain local governments and schools districts to not have their information on line, because their constituents and taxpayers are going to start asking, ‘What do you have to hide? If the town next door or the school district next door has it online, why don’t we have it online as well?’”
It’s easy for a skeptic to look at efforts like the state checkbook project and wonder what’s really behind it. Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio might be one of those skeptics, since she’s been a critic of Mandel for hiring political friends, for the spending in his Senate campaign and during the scandal involving fundraiser Ben Suarez. But she’s totally behind him on this. “When they actually do something good, like Josh Mandel did in this case, that needs to be supported,” said Turcer. “Because that state checkbook, I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. It’s easy to navigate, it’s easy to understand, you can do comparisons between different budgets.”
Jill Miller Zimon runs OpenNEO, which is working to create a way to share lots of data among governments, nonprofits, businesses, academic institutions and citizens. She’s cautiously optimistic too, but highlights one big point for data experts. “This is a really important first effort of this magnitude here in the state of Ohio, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. But what’s also really important to remember is that we’re talking about just financial data,” said Miller Zimon. “Open data, civic open data, public data goes far beyond what we see just in terms of finances – whether we’re talking about local government, state government or the federal government.”
The Republican Mandel touts Ohio’s #1 ranking for financial data transparency from the liberal-leaning Public Interest Research Group. But Miller Zimon says while that’s good news, Ohio lags behind some states in a recent study by the national watchdog Better Government Association in public records accessibility, open meetings, whistleblower protection, and conflicts of interest among lawmakers. But she’s hopeful. “I think what this does is provoke more engagement between the people who are making decision and the people whose money we’re talking about, I think that that’s a good thing and I do think that that’s what’s going to happen,” said Miller Zimon.
And Turcer notes that there’s plenty of government information that’s not online – for instance, about JobsOhio, which gets an official review by a private contractor and not the state auditor. And she notes only the House and Senate Finance Committees are recorded and archived, leaving hundreds of hours of testimony, comments and questions about bills in dozens of committees and subcommittees every year unheard and not able to be accessed.