Transparency In City Spending

Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities

MASSPIRG Education Fund


Boston Receives a Grade of “D-” for Spending Transparency

New MASSPIRG Education Fund Report Compares Boston to Other Major Cities Across America  

Boston – Boston received a grade of “D-” for spending transparency, according to a new report released today by MASSPIRG Education Fund. The report reviews Boston’s progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

“Boston provides limited online access to government expenditure information beyond basic budget documents, and lags behind many other major U.S. cities when it comes to comprehensive spending transparency.” said Deirdre Cummings, Tax and Budget Program Director for MASSPIRG Education Fund.

“The good news is that the Boston administration has demonstrated their capacity to develop and implement innovative on-line programs to make city government more transparent, efficient and accountable. If they bring spending transparency up to the same level of their other programs, they will certainly move to the head of the class.” 

The report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” reviews and grades the nation’s thirty largest cities on how effectively they allow the public to track budgets, contracting, subsidies, grants and requests for quality-of-life services.

Boston’s grade of “D-” nonetheless recognizes that Boston provides basic budget documents online and has a service request center that allows residents to notify city officials of quality-of-life issues that need fixing. The low grade reflects the city’s lack of checkbook-level city spending information and plenty of room for improvement.  For example, Boston should provide checkbook-level spending data that is searchable by city department, keyword, and vendor and is downloadable for data analysis. The city should also post expenditure data from previous fiscal years and provide tax subsidy information that lists the benefits specific companies receive from the city’s tax credits, exemptions, abatements and other tax subsidies.

The report found that 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. Three cities received “A” grades and lead the pack in delivering easy-to-access, encompassing information on government spending: New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. Five cities received failing grades, indicating that they offer little or no spending data online: Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, Sacramento, and Cleveland.

“The ability to see how government spends its funds is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility,” said Cummings.

The report makes a series of recommendations for cities to follow in order to achieve spending transparency, including:

  • Cities should provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail.
  • Checkbook-level data should be searchable and downloadable.
  • Cities should provide web visitors with copies of contracts between vendors and the city.
  • Cities should disclose the tax subsidies awarded to individual companies and recipients.
  • Cities should maintain a central transparency portal for all city spending tools and documents.
  • Cities should allow residents to view service requests submitted by other residents and the city’s responses to those requests.

“City spending has a profound impact on residents’ lives through basic government functions such as policing, sanitation and public health.  Spending transparency can help Bostonians hold their elected leaders accountable and ensure that tax dollars are well spent,” added Cummings.

Boston has launched a number of leading online programs to improve city operations including “Citizens Connect,” a service request portal, an online supplier portal, and automated bidding and contracting system which increases competition that drives down the cost of procured goods and services, and Boston About Results (BAR),  a web application that tracks performance of govern­ment programs and services.

Upgraded in December 2012, each online BAR report gives details on departments’ performances compared with standards and goals. Visitors can view data illustrating trends in police response time to calls, the percentage of students meeting educational standards, the number of jobs created through economic development programs, and city expenses attributed to workers’ compensation claims.

While government performance tracking is not part of the scoring criteria in this report, applications like BAR promote efficiency and save taxpayer money. Ac­cording to Boston officials, BAR has helped dramatically increase the percentage of permits issued on time from 55 percent to 78 percent over the course of three months. Likewise, over the course of one year, BAR tracking helped more than double the per­centage of reported potholes repaired within two days from 47 percent to 96 percent.

The new study extends MASSPIRG’s annual reporting on state government transparency, which since 2010 has compared Massachusetts’ spending transparency to the other 49 states: 2012 Following the Money report.

The “Transparency in City Spending” report can be downloaded at

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MASSPIRG Education Fund conducts research and education on public interest issues