A new era in government transparency
Mandel gave a presentation on the OhioCheckbook.com initiative last Thursday at the R Street Institute’s headquarters in Washington, outlining how it establishes a new national standard for government transparency.
The website presents a searchable database for more than $408 billion in state spending, spanning seven fiscal years, including 112 million individual expenditures and 3.9 billion pieces of financial information. Users can search easily for various government transactions, downloading Excel spreadsheets or obtaining pie charts and bar charts of queried data. Each bar or pie slice is then clickable to compare more deeply the spending by different branches and departments of state government.
During the R Street demonstration, Mandel highlighted the spending of entities like the state Department of Transportation and even gave us a look at some individual expenditure searches like “Lockheed Martin.”
Some of the searches were more eye-popping than others. For example searching “playboy” on OhioCheckbook.com revealed a 2009 Department of Veterans Services expenditure of $31.92 on a Playboy magazine subscription. It turns out the bill was less egregious than it would at first appear. A state credit card issued to a staffer at the Ohio Veterans Home in Sandusky was stolen by a resident and used for a few unauthorized purchases. The credit card was quickly canceled and the state suffered no loss.
According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, OhioCheckbook.com has propelled Ohio from 46th in government transparency to first among the 50 states. Mandel noted that investigative journalists love the tool, but it isn’t just media types who stand to benefit. State residents, legislators and government watchdog groups have a new level of insight into the financial records of the Buckeye State.
While the increased sunlight may not have made Mandel’s political friends terribly happy, it has inspired a growing bipartisan coalition of legislators to introduce a bill requiring future state treasurers to maintain the site. After only six months online, a handful of other states have contacted the Treasurer’s Office about adopting similar programs, which Mandel said he found encouraging. He also detailed his office’s recent efforts to encourage Ohio municipalities, cities and school districts to develop their own versions of the online checkbook, noting that many smaller municipalities in Ohio still use a pad and pen to keep the books.
Over the past decade, a number of local, state and federal officials have called for a new era in transparency. Unfortunately, in many areas of the country, things haven’t changed much. It’s exciting to see a real manifestation of this concept in actual practice, with Ohio breaking new ground by actually opening the government’s checkbook to public scrutiny.