Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cleaning up Massachusetts: Searchable Web portals to track any government contract or subsidy are becoming standard practice

Cleaning up Massachusetts
By Deirdre Cummings
November 30, 2008

IN LIGHT of the simmering scandals about Massachusetts public officials and private money, the announcement of the Governor's Task Force on Public Integrity comes not a moment too soon. The Commonwealth can get a handle on its governance problems if it examines the issues comprehensively and offers new tools for transparency and accountability.

Transparency and accountability go hand in hand. A transparent government allows citizens, the media, and watchdog groups to hold government officials accountable. The ability to see how government uses the public purse checks corruption, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.

Like a growing number of states, Massachusetts should enlist new information technology tools to enhance transparency for public money. Eighteen states have established a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. Searchable Web portals to track any government contract or subsidy are becoming standard practice, at least in other states. Public officials across the country increasingly know that their spending and fiscal decisions are open to public scrutiny.

The technological tools are something we take for granted in the private sector. Internet search engines have revolutionized the accessibility of information. We can track deliveries online, check cellphone minutes, and compare real estate, even summon - at the click of a mouse - satellite and street-level views of any address. But when it comes to tracking particular government expenditures online, we are left in the dark.

As legislation and executive orders around the country are lifting the electronic veil on where tax dollars go, a wide variety of benefits have been realized that extend beyond accountability and integrity. Residents in surveys endorse these systems and embrace them with increased civic engagement. The Missouri Accountability Portal received more than 6 million hits less than a year after its launch.

Transparency websites can also save money through unearthing inefficient operations, reducing costly manual information requests, and increasing the number of contractors bidding on public contracts. In Texas, the comptroller reports $2.3 million in savings from a more efficient government administration following the launch of its website.

Transparency budget portals allow states to track how well subsidies and tax incentives deliver results, allowing the state to better target expenditures. By tracking the performance of state subsidies, Minnesota and Illinois have recaptured money from projects that failed to deliver their promised results. More comprehensive tracking of procurement and contractors across agencies has even helped other states increase their use of minority- and women-owned businesses.

Massachusetts, consistently ranked as a top state for technology industries, and just named the top-ranked state in the New Economy Index by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, should be a leader in this field. Instead, the Commonwealth is barely beginning to take advantage of the benefits of online transparency for government expenditures. While the state maintains a website that allows the search of some government contracts online, it lacks the kind of systematic, user-friendly systems being developed in other states.

With the Legislature's approval, the Governor's Task Force presents a unique opportunity for much-needed reform. The administration can implement upgrades as part of the three-year information technology overhaul it's already committed to and the Legislature has already funded as part of July's bond bill.

The stakes are high. Local and state lawmakers have been accused of taking money in exchange for political favors, and Massachusetts faces recurring budget shortfalls and a host of challenges that require major public investment. Controversies related to the Big Dig and subsidies for large corporations and development projects have sullied the public's trust. While soundly defeated, recent calls for a repeal of the state's income tax are a warning sign that Massachusetts citizens want answers.

In cleaning up the ethics mess, the Public Integrity Task force would do well to consider a phrase coined by Justice Louis Brandeis, in praise of public transparency and disclosure: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Deirdre Cummings is the budget and legislative director for MASSPIRG, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public-interest watchdog group.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.


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