“State Transparency Website Not Transparent Enough”–that’s the title of a recent 7NEWS story (video) discussing Rep. B.J. Nikkel’s (R-Loveland) transparency efforts, including the CDOT transparency measure passed 65-0 in the House earlier today.
While Nikkel gives the current state online database–Transparency Online Project or TOPS–a “C” for content, it is the confluence of both that content and usability that really determines the transparency being provided. We’ve been critical, labeling TOPS a “user-unfriendly” transparency Web site.
Nikkel’s concern is that some details, such as those missing from the Colorado Department of Transportation, make drilling down on state expenditures difficult, if not impossible, to find in some cases. The new CDOT transparency site would accomplish both providing more information from the department and a more straightforward to finding that spending documentation.
Examining a state department’s expenditures on “marketing”-related materials, for example, could be significant. But without context (additional itemized information or documentation), the expenditure itself is rendered meaningless, outside of its absolute dollar value.
Is the expenditure permitted within the law? Should government agencies engage in such expenditures? Are there ethical issues at stake?
Such critical nuances may not be COST’s ultimate determination, but lacking precise details, it is much more difficult to make the case against profligate or unethical government spending when too little is known.
Going beyond Nikkel’s push for the state to be mandated to provide such readily available documentation is the necessity for the documentation to be presented in a user-friendly manner. Anyone familiar with state procedures, state documents, and other government-generated paperwork, often gained through Colorado Open Records Act requests, can easily find the information daunting, if not indecipherable (certainly, not without a great deal of financial or accounting expertise, for example, when looking at state budget numbers).
The greater the searchability of the database, and the more accurate that that data may be returned, in a clear and precise manner, vastly increases the level of transparency available to watchdog groups, investigative journalists, and average citizens alike. It also relieves some of the pressure from state agencies who would see a potential decrease in CORA requests as much more information was not only made available online, but presented in a straightforward manner. Nikkel’s victory today in securing expanded CDOT transparency closes a critical information gap, as we wrote earlier.
The next step in the transparency process is to fine-tune the deliverables, so that not only is more information made available to taxpayers, but that the information is presented in a valuable way.