By Richard Eckstrom
Making detailed financial information easily available to the public improves the quality of government. It keeps officials on their toes and makes it easier to catch misspending and waste. Transparency builds trust with taxpayers, who have a right to know how their hard-earned dollars are being spent.
About this time each year, advocates for open-government celebrate Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote access to public information. This year, Sunshine Week is observed March 13-19. This occasion is used to educate citizens about freedom-of-information laws, push public officials to be more open, and promote the benefits of transparency. I often use it to emphasize a critical element of open-government – posting online spending reports.
To be sure, access to detailed information on state and local government spending has increased tremendously over the past several years. It was in 2008 that South Carolina became one of the first states in the nation to create a fiscal transparency website – an online check register showing monthly, itemized expenditures for all state agencies … fulfilling a goal I’d had since the early days of the Internet.
Now, just about every state has such a site, although I’m proud to say that I believe we’re the only state to develop ours without seeking additional funds to do it. (It was important to show it could be done inexpensively – undercutting one of the loudest arguments raised by early opponents of spending transparency.)
Following this success, my staff and I began encouraging local governments to increase their financial transparency, asking counties, municipalities and school districts to voluntarily post their expenditures online. Initially, many local officials were hesitant, expressing their concern over the cost and effort involved; some of their concerns were genuine, although I’m sure some simply didn’t appreciate this added layer of citizen-oversight. Ultimately, some 30-plus local governments – from the large counties of Charleston and Greenville to the towns of Chesnee, Greer and Surfside Beach – began publishing their spending details online.
Our pioneering work prompted a new state law directing all school districts to post their spending details online. Public colleges and universities soon began to do the same.
In 2011, a handful of good-government advocates in Congress introduced the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act to require that federal spending data be standardized and published online monthly. Congress debated the Act for three years; it eventually was signed into law, yet only after the White House successfully lobbied to cut back the reporting requirements – including to publish the information only quarterly rather than monthly. (The website is SpendingUSA.gov.)
While we’ve come a long way, governments at all levels still fall far short of providing the level of transparency that taxpayers deserve. For one thing, too many cities and counties in South Carolina still don’t post their spending details online.
And while much of my focus has been on publishing itemized spending online, which is an efficient way to combat waste, there are certainly other areas where the curtain needs pulling back. Taxpayers are largely kept in the dark about the costly recruiting incentives their local and state governments hand out to attract development.
In addition, the time it takes for many of our state’s cities and counties to produce their annual audited financial reports is a persistent problem. Too many of these reports – designed to disclose detailed information on assets, liabilities, long-term debt, revenues and expenditures – take so long for some governments to complete that the delays impair the use of the reports for accountability and oversight purposes.
One of Sunshine Week’s objectives is to enlist the public’s help in the fight for transparency. Want to get involved? Then hold politicians’ feet to the fire. If your local governments’ spending details aren’t available online, call your representatives and ask why. Find out whether your local government’s annual financial reports are issued timely (within six months of year-end).
Ask if the public is allowed to see how your local government makes decisions and how it operates. Are issues discussed in public rather than in closed-door executive sessions? Are the community’s requests for records answered promptly (and free of charge)?
Transparency is vital not just because of tangible benefits, but because of what it says about the officials who embrace it. It says we understand that our constituents are our bosses, that they’re who we answer to.
Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state Comptroller. He’s president of the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers, and Treasurers.