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Online Budget Transparency: The View from Arizona

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Serena Unrein is a public interest advocate with Arizona PIRG Education Fund. In this guest post, she discuss Arizona’s experience with online budget transparency, the subject of two recent reports by Frontier Group and our partners at U.S. PIRG Education Fund.

It’s easy for government officials to say that government transparency is important – I’ve yet to meet the politician who is opposed to transparency – but actually making government transparent is a much heavier lift.

Across the country this year, states have been grappling with deep budget shortfalls. Even with bleak financial news from coast to coast, one bright light has been increased state budget transparency. The State of Arizona is a great example of how governments can provide the public with much more information, even as they are strapped for cash.

State governments increasingly are providing taxpayers with information about revenues and spending through online budget transparency websites. But, these websites need to be comprehensive, one-stop, and one-click searchable to be of value to the public. 

My state of Arizona is relatively new to online spending transparency. The first edition of our Following the Moneyreport, issued in 2010, gave Arizona an "F" for its lack of transparency. 

In late December 2010, however, Arizona launched its official transparency website, OpenBooks. Even though the cost to develop the site was only $50,000, the new site placed Arizona firmly on the honor roll in this year’s updatedFollowing the Money report. 

The report documents a number of examples of how states have seen cost savings from their transparency websites, but some of the benefits of these sites can’t be quantified in a report. In Arizona, state officials have told me that the state has already seen better information and reporting because of the public accountability that the website provides. Since the launch of the website, there has been a significant drop in the number of state expenditures coded as “miscellaneous.” The website also has served as a tool for agency heads to easily see where their agency’s money is spent, rather than having to navigate an antiquated mainframe computer system for the information. 

Having seen the benefits of online spending transparency, state officials are looking for ways to expand their efforts, despite dealing with very limited resources. The Arizona Department of Administration promised not to rest on its laurels and already is discussing ways to improve the OpenBooks site.

By putting the spotlight on transparency efforts and creating a healthy competition among the states, the Following the Money series of reports has helped create momentum for increased budget transparency in our state. I’ve even been told that the media coverage surrounding the release of the report resulted in a huge bump in visitor traffic to Arizona’s transparency website, demonstrating yet again that the public is hungry for timely, accurate and detailed information on how government spends its money.

As Arizona and other states around the country deal with continuing fiscal challenges, public interest in government spending information will likely continue to grow. It’s up to our public officials to follow through and give the public the information it needs to take part in the difficult fiscal debates that lie ahead.