News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. Governments Need More Online Transparency

JLF analysts search state, local Web sites for budget information

RALEIGH – North Carolina state agencies and local governments earn poor marks, when it comes to making budget and spending information available online. That’s the conclusion of a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

“This state, home to national banks that update their customers’ accounts instantly anywhere around the world, woefully lags in making spending transparent at every level,” said report co-author Chad Adams, JLF Vice President for Development and director of the Center for Local Innovation. “North Carolina needs to do more.”

Adams and JLF Fiscal Policy Analyst Joseph Coletti evaluated the Web sites of 22 state agencies, North Carolina’s 10 largest cities, 10 largest counties, and 10 highest-spending school districts. Each earned a letter grade from A to F based on the “degree of difficulty” presented to citizens hoping to find line-item budgets, annual financial reports, and information about government contracts, grants to non-profit groups, and personnel data. Details are available in the JLF Transparency Report Card 2008.

As a group, the cities earned the highest marks with an overall grade of C-minus on the report’s 2008 Transparency Report Card. Individual city grades ranged from a B in sharing information about crime rates to an F for government contracts. Counties earned an overall D-plus grade; local school districts, D; and state agencies, D-minus.

Seven state agencies earn failing grades, and 20 of 22 agencies studied earned no better than a D-plus grade. The report assigns F’s to the departments of Commerce, Correction, Environment and Natural Resources, Insurance, Justice, Transportation, and the State Treasurer. The only state agencies to escape a D or F grade were the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, with a C, and the Department of Public Instruction, C-minus.

“Taxpayers and voters should react to these grades the same way parents would react to bad grades on their child’s report card,” Adams said. “We can’t take away their iPods, but we can call on local and state government to clean up this mess and improve their transparency. It shouldn’t be a demand; it’s an obligation.”

State agencies and local governments have generally not thought about the user experience when putting their financial information online, Coletti said. “This is unfortunate, since city and county budget documents can cover thousands of pages with detailed line items full of acronyms and jargon understood by few,” he said. “The $20 billion state budget is even more complex and often difficult for even seasoned legislators to understand. Fiscal transparency is critical to citizens.”

True citizen oversight depends on government agencies making financial information available online in a way that makes sense for taxpayers, elected officials, and staff, Adams said.

“These Web sites already include information on everything from paying bills to learning to use the local library to checking your neighbor’s voter registration,” he said. “Some government agencies clearly have the technical expertise but not the desire to post detailed budgets online in searchable databases.”

State and local government agencies still have a long way to go with respect to meeting public expectations for transparency, Coletti said. “In the second decade of the digital age, our state is still in its infancy with respect to this issue,” he said. “Having been dominated by scandal in recent years it is absolutely critical that members of the public have greater access to the programs and line items that they are funding.”

The new Spotlight report marks the first phase of a “major initiative to urge state and local officials to develop transparency Web sites,” Adams said. “After cataloguing what’s available now from government agencies, we’ll create our own Web portal at www.johnlocke.org so the public can access current information easily,” he said. “Then we will urge North Carolina to create a comprehensive online reporting system.”

Easily accessible information is critical to modern government, Adams said. “The lack of available financial information provides citizens very little reason to trust that their money is being used wisely or, in some cases, legally,” he said. “It is incumbent upon North Carolina state and local government officials to make transparency a top issue. In so doing, they will reduce the possibility for corruption, improve public accountability, and increase the ability to measure success.”