MASSPIRG Released A New Transparent Budget Report: Transparency.gov2.0

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MASSPIRG released a new report today highlighting the benefits and need for an open and transparent state budget. The report, 2.0, Using the Internet for budget transparency to increase accountability, efficiency and taxpayer confidence, makes the case that the commonwealth lags other states in implementing new budget transparency tools that check corruption, bolster public confidence in government, and promote fiscal responsibility. “The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy,” said Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG’s legislative director, in her testimony before today’s public hearing before the Task Force on Public Integrity.

In the private sector, internet search technology has revolutionized the accessibility and transparency of information.  We take for granted the ability to track deliveries online, to check cell phone minutes and compare real estate on the Web, even to summon – at the click of a mouse – satellite and street-level views of any address.  But until recently, when it came to tracking government expenditures online, we were left in the dark.

State governments across the country are changing that.  A growing number of states are using powerful Internet search technology to make budget transparency more accessible than ever before.  Legislation and executive orders around the country are lifting the electronic veil on where tax dollars go.  At least 18 states currently mandate that citizens be able to access a searchable online database of government expenditures.  These states have come to define “Transparency 2.0” – a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

Massachusetts, consistently ranked as a top state for technology industries, should be a natural leader of the Transparency 2.0 movement.  While the Governor deserves credit for posting more budget documents and information online, these do not include systemic transparency for contracting and subsidies where potential conflicts of interest would be most acute. As more and more states upgrade their integrated transparency systems, Massachusetts has fallen behind the emerging set of best practices. 

MASSPIRG reviewed how the Commonwealth could catch up to other states in using the Internet for public budget transparency to increase accountability, efficiency and improve taxpayer confidence.  “We found that Massachusetts is behind many other states; but that significant benefits could be achieved through relatively easy-to-implement reforms,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy for U.S.PIRG, and one of the report authors.

The report makes the case that in the course of upgrading government IT systems we must seize the opportunity to catch up with a nationwide movement of state and local government to enhance budget transparency and thereby increase efficiency, accountability, and public trust.  The report documents the accelerating trend toward budget Transparency 2.0 in other states.  It examines the benefits of this improved transparency, highlighting best practices and offering suggestions for how Massachusetts can catch up. Specifically, the report finds that:

  • Nationally, the movement toward government budget Transparency 2.0 is broad, bipartisan, and popular
  • Transparency 2.0 saves money and bolsters citizen confidence
  • Other states have developed best practices
  • Massachusetts can become a leader of the Transparency 2.0 movement

The stakes are high.  Massachusetts faces recurring budget shortfalls and a host of challenges that require major public investment.  Controversies related to the Big Dig and subsidies for large corporations and development projects have sullied the public’s trust.  Recent calls for a repeal of the commonwealth’s income tax are a warning sign that Massachusetts citizens are finding it too difficult to trace the connection between government expenditures and the critical projects they fund.  Budget transparency through the internet can be a big part of the solution.