By Dr. Vance Ginn and Nozim Ishankulov

Open access to government is a key to accountable representation. The International Budget Partnership (IBP) recently released a report ranking the U.S. fifth best in effective governance and transparency. In another report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund and Frontier Group, Texas ranks 13th in budget transparency. Despite these high marks, there is clearly more work both could do to provide real-time, online access to budget documents.

The IBP report aims at “advancing budget transparency, participation and accountability, based its rankings on the work of 102 research institutions and civil society organizations around the world.” The average Open Budget Index (OBI) score, which explores the factors that are associated with different released levels of transparency, is 45 out of 100. The U.S. scores an 81, falling into the category of countries that “provide the public with extensive budget information.” The highest score of 88 is in New Zealand.

According to the report, the U.S. can improve budget transparency by implementing the following:

  • Produce and publish a Citizens Budget for its Executive’s Budget Proposal; and
  • Increase the comprehensiveness of the Enacted Budget by, for instance, presenting information on all expenditures, revenues, and debt.

The above score is given for the federal budget and doesn’t reflect state-level budget transparency. The recent study Following the Money 2015 would be useful for that by ranking the 50 states on providing online access to government spending data. Figure 1 shows the ranking and score for each state.

Figure 1: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending

The report concludes: “All 50 states operate websites to make information on state expenditures accessible to the public and these web portals continue to improve. Some states, however, still have a long way to go.

The three states that have the longest way to go, or have the worst ranking for budget transparency, are Idaho, Alaska, and California. Not only does California have the highest personal income tax rate of 13.3 percent nationwide, but taxpayers have the least access to information online about how their tax dollars are spent. According to the report, reasons for the worst position are absence of comprehensive information on economic development subsidies and tax expenditure reports.

The top score of 100 goes to Ohio thanks to a new transparency website with a user-friendly interface that provides visitors with accessible information on an array of expenditures, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Ohio’s New Website Provides Increased Budget Transparency

Texas ranks 13th and according to the study, the administration of the state provides an accessible level of transparency through a convenient website and detailed data.

The study’s authors find that the states have opportunities to improve their budget transparency by expanding access to searching a state’s checkbook, providing detailed checkbook-level information and tax expenditure reports, and enhancing user-friendliness in design and functionality.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation suggests the following recommendations to improve budget efficiency and transparency in Texas:

  • Move from a strategic planning and budgeting system to a program-based budgeting system.
  • Adopt zero-based budgeting to ensure taxpayers get the most value of the programs and departments they fund.
  • Provide budget information online in near real-time throughout the legislative process.

These steps could also be helpful for other states and even the federal government. Taxpayers deserve nothing less than open online access to how their tax dollars are spent in the 21st century.