New Analysis Compares Providence to Other Cities on Spending Transparency

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Ryan Pierannunzi

Providence Receives a “D+” Compared With 30 Largest Cities in America

RIPIRG Education Fund

Today, the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group (RIPIRG) Education Fund released an analysis which gives Providence a grade of “D+” when compared to spending transparency in the nation’s thirty largest cities. This Providence analysis follows a national report, released in January, which evaluated each city’s progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

“Rhode Islanders expect to be able to instantly view their cell phone minutes, the location of their packages, and the menu of any restaurant they pass on the street,” said Ryan Pierannunzi, Tax and Budget Associate with the Rhode Island Public Interest Research Group (RIPIRG) and a coauthor of the report. “Why should they expect information about city government to be any less transparent?”

The national report, “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” found that 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. The report’s authors conducted a separate analysis using the same scoring criteria to determine that Providence receives a “D+” grade.

The “D+” grade recognizes that while Providence provides some basic budget documents online and posts limited checkbook-level expenditure information related to grants, the city does not provide checkbook-level information for the majority of city spending, and has plenty of room for improvement.  

For example, Providence should provide recipient-specific spending data on all municipal expenses that is searchable by city department, keyword, and vendor, and is downloadable for data analysis.  The city should also post historical 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 and abatements.  Providence should develop a one-stop transparency website to centralize city spending information and make it easier for citizens to access such information.

The leading cities in the report earned an “A” grade by delivering easy-to-access, encompassing information on government spending.  The cities that received failing grades currently offer little or no spending data online. In comparison, Boston received a grade of “D-” while New York City received an “A.”

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

In 2011, the city established the Open Providence Commission for Transparency and Accountability.  In January, the commission released its recommendations for improving overall transparency in Rhode Island’s largest city.  One of their recommendations was the establishment of an “open checkbook” of government expenditures.

“If the city follows through on the suggestions of our 14-member commission, Providence will improve dramatically when it comes to transparency in spending as well as a variety of other areas,” said John Marion, Executive Director of Common Cause Rhode Island and the chair of the commission. 

The new report released by the RIPIRG Education Fund 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.

“We hope that this new report can serve as a resource to Providence as the city moves forward in its continued efforts to improve city transparency,” said Pierannunzi.  “We applaud the city for creating the Open Providence Commission for Transparency and Accountability and look forward to the implementation of the commission’s findings.”

The new study extends RIPIRG Education Fund and U.S.PIRG Education Fund’s annual reporting on state government transparency, which since 2010 has compared spending transparency among the 50 states.

The “Transparency in City Spending” report can be downloaded here.