When Rep. Mike Duffey was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives in 2010, the state faced a $7.7 billion budget shortfall. In trying to close the gap, Duffey and his colleagues quickly realized open data was key to eliminating the deficit.
“We want to have the data to back up what we’re trying to do,” Duffey said during a panel at the Data Transparency Coalition’s 2014 conference. “That really got us thinking about benchmarking, which lead us to open data, and we started having conversations with the Sunlight Foundation, and started looking at what other states have done.”
A lot has changed in the last four years. In 2010, open data was a relatively new concept – most states didn’t have an integrated platform for it. Now, all 50 U.S. states have systems in place, but that doesn’t mean that the work on opening data is done.
“All 50 states have some sort of a transparency site,” Cornelia Chebinou, the Washington director for the National Association of State Comptrollers and Treasurers, said. “Some of them are pretty robust sites and quite honestly, some of them are unsearchable and unusable, so we have a ways to go in setting the federal standards.”
Ari Hoffnung was the deputy comptroller in New York City in 2010 when officials realized an urgent need for transparent financial data. In response, Hoffnung and his team launched Checkbook NYC – the first website of it’s kind to allow citizens to view their city’s budget, revenue, spending and payroll information all in one dashboard.
“Checkbook NYC really started serving as a managerial dashboard of sorts of internal purposes in a way that we really didn’t envision,” Hoffnung, also on the panel, said.
This sort of initiative set the precedent for many of the other municipalities and states throughout the U.S. And some of these initiatives have established ways of rating the proficiency of these open data systems at the state and local level.
“There’s a public interest group that issues a report card every year,” Chebinou said. “It actually grades the states on their transparency sites under a number of different actions: ease of use, information that’s available, downloadable information and all of those sorts of things.”
In May 2014, President Barack Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, better known as the DATA Act, which requires that the Treasury Department and the White House Office of Management and Budget to transform U.S. federal spending documents from isolated to open, which standardizes the information available to the public online.
Although the DATA Act’s effects have traditionally been discussed at the federal level, the panel also examined what the implications and precedents established could be for states and municipalities.
“I think the extension of trust is a huge potential upside to the label of openness data, make it user friendly and digestible for the average citizen, not just for people that are in this room that really are the elite of the elite in understanding these topics,” Duffey said.
According to a Pew Research study, just 19 percent of Americans say they trust government to do what’s right – down from a high of 73 percent in 1958, Hoffnung said.
“When it comes to spending, a 2011 Gallup Poll found that American taxpayers believe – get this – 51 cents on every dollar is wasted by the federal government,” Hoffnung said. “It’s my hope that the DATA Act ultimately answers the most basic questions taxpayers have whether they are in Columbus or New York City or in Seattle or wherever they are, which is – pardon my language – but what the blank does the federal government do with my money?”
By allowing the public to gain access this information, many states are hopeful they will regain this public trust.
Looking to the future, Hoffnung said the most important task at hand is to get the data to the public and that financial transparency needs to be a top priority for state and local governments.
“The laser focus on implementing the DATA Act and creating data standards will kind of heighten the awareness about the importance of financial transparency on a state and local level will implement their own financial transparency solutions,” Hoffnung said.
As Internet usage for data consumption increases across the country and the globe, the power of data and of the Internet as a whole cannot be underestimated, Hoffnung said.
“We already know that the Internet can be used as a tool to topple governments,” Hoffnung said. “Can the Internet be used as a tool to strengthen governments and to strengthen democracy? That’s what I’m hopeful that the DATA Act will do for state and local governments.”