Ohio Raises the Bar With Improvement in its Online Checkbook
Ohio’s Treasurer, Josh Mandel, had been promising to put Ohio’s checkbook online since at least 2013. That year, he said that the basic idea is to “allow citizen auditors to easily examine the state's purchases, from paper clips and hotel rooms to consulting work. Ultimately, the checkbook would allow people to search, among other things, which vendors get the most money and how spending on certain services compares from one agency to another.”
Late last year, Mandel’s promise went live, as numerous outlets reported on Dec. 2, 2014. Describing OhioCheckbook.com, 10tv reported that the online checkbook shows 112 million transactions over the past seven years, and that it took a year and half to put together all the numbers. OhioCheckbook.com contains easy-to-read pie graphs revealing the various agencies’ and departments’ expenditures.
It also allows users to see total state spending ($61 billion in fiscal year 2014), what the largest expense types are (medical services, at $15 billion in fiscal year 2014), and the highest paid companies (United Health Care, at $313 million in fiscal year 2014), as well as other things. The site also contains a year-to-date spending pie chart, but it does not yet contain any figures for fiscal year 2015, which began July 2014.
At the end of the 2014 calendar year, the Public Interest Research Group’s (PIRG) publication Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data gave Ohio a D-, largely because the database was not searchable.
PIRG awarded top scores, A- ranks, to eight states (n order by rank, Indiana, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin) for sites that offered spending transparency, user friendliness, accessibility, and the ability to “download and analyze the entire checkbook dataset.” The nine states that received D range ranks (in descending order, Minnesota, Delaware, South Carolina, Rhode Island, North Dakota, Alabama, Nevada, Ohio, and Kansas) had less accessible data and users could not download and analyze the entire data set.
What a difference three months make. PIRG’s Following the Money 2015 now ranks Ohio at #1 with an A+ rating. PIRG asserts that transparency is critical because it helps governments save millions in taxpayer money “through more efficient government administration, less staff time spent on information requests, and the posting of contracts enabling potential new vendors to identify opportunities to win lower-cost bids or offer higher-quality goods and services.” In addition, PIRG asserts that transparency reduces abuse and misspending by government officials because they are aware that the public is watching.
PIRG explains that Ohio’s meteoric rise is based on the site’s use of user-friendly features normally found on cutting edge, non-government webpages. The search function is easy and “akin to searching with a high-performance web tool thanks to Google-style contextual search functionality.” This, along with the “Share” and “Help” buttons contributes to OhioCheckbook.com’s “topflight standards for user-friendliness, creating a portal that feels like many search websites citizens use every day.”
OhioCheckbook.com cost $814,000 to get up and running and its ongoing operations are funded by the existing budget. In late January of 2015, Seth Unger in the Ohio Treasurer’s Office reported that there had already been 100,000 searches.
PIRG applauds Ohio for having “taken accountability to the next level by establishing a new best practice of providing a phone number and email address for the most appropriate human point of contact alongside every line of data.” The next step is to include municipal and county level data, and detailing all the public-private partnerships.
Ultimately, PIRG proclaims that Ohio has set a new standard for user-friendliness and accountability.