Report lauds Vermont for leap forward in online transparency

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

A new report from a national federation of consumer advocacy groups ranks Vermont among the nation’s best in providing online transparency for spending.

TRANSPARENT: Vermonters who want to “follow the money” of state spending can do so thanks to checkbook-level transparency through the state’s Spotlight tool.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group on Tuesday released its fifth annual report comparing spending transparency online across all 50 states.

The report, “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” provides “A” to “F” letter grades to help identify states that are leading the way in online access to government spending data.

Vermont, which two years ago received a “D-” for its lack of online transparency tools, received an “A-” rating in the newly released report — a jump attributed to Spotlight, the state’s transparency website.

In particular, the report zeroes-in on Spotlight’s new checkbook tool, which enables users to view state payments to vendors from 66 departments and agencies as far back as 2011. The tool tracks spending entries totaling more than $12.3 billion dollars.

U.S. PIRG analysts wrote that Spotlight was easy to use and highly relevant: “Not only can users search for payments by department, vendor and purpose, but they can also filter the results to find specific payment information more easily.”

Vermont Spotlight is sponsored by the Agency of Administration and maintained by the Department of Finance & Management.

Much of the credit for the state’s new A-level rating belongs to Susan Zeller, Vermont’s chief performance officer.

“If you go to our site, we do a lot more than fiscal transparency,” Zeller told Vermont Watchdog. ”We do budgets, we do financial reports, contracts, and grants — we have a lot of other pieces on our transparency website than strictly where the money goes.”

Zeller said the key to creating an effective tool is identifying the data that people seek most often, and building from there.

“We started with the data that’s most requested, which is budget information, revenue information and spending by vendors. We had that data, but it wasn’t in the form that somebody could search easily.”

Prior to Spotlight, people who wished to find such information would have to search dozens of different government websites. In some cases, the data wasn’t even digital.

“We have data coming out of our ears, but it’s almost always in hard copy reports, so it doesn’t lend itself toward posting these kind of results on a website,” Zeller said.

The team responsible for creating Spotlight and its new checkbook tool consists of only three people and one technical resource. Zeller, who served eight years as deputy commissioner of finance for the Department of Finance and Management, provided expert financial knowledge to guide the project.

Importantly, Vermont developed Spotlight with limited resources — a fact that received special notice from U.S. PIRG.

The report noted little relationship between a state’s budget size and its level of transparency, noting that California got the lowest score, while smaller state South Dakota and Vermont got some of the best scores.

Zeller expressed pride over her team’s use of resources.

“One of the other things they pointed out is even for a little state like Vermont — and believe me, we don’t have a lot of resources — you can make a real effort and have success at transparency if you simply be a little creative about it.”

Tuesday’s report marks U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s fifth annual ranking of states. The consumer group advocates “checkbook-level” spending transparency in states to help increase accountability and fiscal responsibility.

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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