Starting to see a bit more clearly

Jon Bartholomew

This week, the Oregon Department of Administrative Services will be updating the Oregon Transparency website. This is the website that allows anyone to see exactly how Oregon state agencies spend tax dollars and where they get the revenues. The site provides checkbook-level information so detailed that you can see how much the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife spends on their subscription to Field and Stream Magazine ($28). The update this week is to provide data about 2010 budget year information.

There are several goals to making government spending more transparent. First, the public can help hold government programs more accountable if they can easily see how their tax dollars are being spent – which has led to cost savings in other states. Transparency then leads to more citizen involvement in their government, which in turn leads to a greater understanding of what government does and rebuilding of trust in our public structures. Also, by putting the data in the hands of the public, we can start having political debates based on facts instead of only rhetoric.

There are a lot of improvements that need to be made to this site. And as a member of the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission, if you have suggestions on how to make it better, please share them with me. The Commission guides the implementation of this website. However, we have one significant restriction – there is no budget specifically earmarked for this project.

More after the jump...

Some improvements that I recommend are based on what other states do with their transparency sites.

The Missouri transparency website is updated daily, not annually, providing close to real-time information for the public. For Oregon to do this, it would require us to set up an enterprise resource planning system, which would cost money in the short run, but may well be worth it in the long run.

The Missouri site also has an excellent search function that allows the public to search by vendor, spending category, contract or agency. The results are then downloadable to a spreadsheet.

Oregon’s site does provide spreadsheets you can download, but then you have to search through that to find anything. It also requires you to download huge spreadsheets of multiple agencies at one time instead of just looking at one agency at a time.

The City of Albany, Oregon has a site that provides a considerable amount of context for citizens to understand how their tax dollars are being spent. On Albany’s site, city homeowners can plug in their address and the site will tell you how much your property taxes are and how much of them goes to specific local government programs. They also provide performance measure reports for many city departments so the public can see what the city said they would do with the funds, and if they actually met their goals. Context is critical to a useful government transparency website, and over time, we hope to see more of this included in Oregon’s site.

A major lack in Oregon’s transparency website is that we don’t provide any information about economic development tax incentives. Governments don’t just spend money directly, they also spend money through the tax code by giving special exemptions, credits, abatements and deductions to taxpayers with a specific policy goal in mind. Oregon state programs for economic development account for over $350 million per biennium that is not collected in taxes that otherwise would be. In a time with record unemployment and budget deficits, we need to know if these programs are working effectively and providing taxpayers with the most bang for the buck. The only way to know that is to see who received how much money in these tax incentives, what they promised in return and what they actually delivered. This information is already collected for the most part, and where it’s not, it absolutely needs to be collected. Put simply, this is saying “you told us that this tax break would create jobs. Show us that the jobs were created and how much it cost us.” Is that too much to ask?

It’s clearly not too much to ask in 37 other states. A recent Good Jobs First report gave Oregon an “F” for our level of online transparency of economic development incentives. But 37 states did not receive F’s. We can do better. We can do like Illinois does, where they post online the reports from corporations receiving economic development tax incentives that show who received how much, and how many jobs were created or retained. We do collect this information now for businesses operating in Enterprise Zones, the Strategic Investment Program and other programs. We’re just saying “show us the jobs.”

I believe that by posting this information, we can find efficiencies, rebuild trust in government, and improve government programs.

If you have used the Oregon transparency website, I would appreciate your thoughts on how to improve it. It may take a while for us to get it to where it’s the most useful, due to budget constraints, but we need to be ever pushing the envelope.

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    I messed around with it a bit.

    You're on the right track with "requires you to download huge spreadsheets of multiple agencies"... but the size of the spreadsheets aren't the only problem. It's their existence at all.

    Sure, policy nerds and professional advocates will wade through spreadsheet data -- but the public needs to be presented data that can be comprehended without number-crunching.

    A picture is worth a thousand words - and a bar chart can illustrate a thousand numbers, and more importantly, make them understandable, provide context, and more.

    Every single person on the Transparency Commission should be conversant with the information design work of Edward Tufte.

    As Tufte often points out, bad information design can kill people -- as it did in the space shuttle Challenger disaster. For want of a simple chart, NASA management didn't comprehend what they were asking the engineers to do on that fateful day.

    It's not transparent if no one can understand it.

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      that would be good. there is some of that for the overall budget, but not for expenditures.

      one principle the website is working from is that there will be third parties that download the data and then turn it into a more digestible format. I've already seen some of that done.

      A good model to look at is the work done by The FEC provides raw data, open secrets makes it understandable. I think we could use a bit more of that here in Oregon.

      Thanks for the feedback.

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