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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

State debuts lame 'transparency in government' website

Posted By on Tue, Jan 6, 2009 at 4:39 PM

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Let it first be said: The state Department of Audits and Accounting produces quality reports about government waste and efficiency, the kind that provide for fascinating reading. That is, if you're into policy and government review. The scathing criticism you are about to read is not directed at the department, but at government accounting as a whole, and at politicians who think simply "putting the facts out there" leads to any kind of progress or transparency.

That being said, fans of open government might first be pleased and then pissed off with a new state website that launched yesterday and which is maintained by the department. That site, "Open Georgia: Transparency in Government," allows users to search employee salaries and view how much our elected overlords doled out to professional service vendors during the last two fiscal years. The site, the brainchild of state Sens. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock and Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, met the Jan. 2009 launch date set by Gov. Sonny Perdue.

But judging from its contents, the governor should've given them some more time.

Sure, there are tons are fun numbers and pages of data. State budget reports and the departments audits? That's great data to give citizens.

But if you want to see how much the governor was paid in 2008 ($137,310.24) or how much he was reimbursed for travel last year ($47,206.17), it's there. Detailed reports on the cost of each of those trips, however? Meh, maybe next year.

For many of the "professional expenditures," you'll find descriptions of the services — concrete and self-explanatory terms and phrases like "consultant," "3rd party expense" and "reimbursable expenses." The nearly $8.4 million the state DOT paid last year to the Georgia Department of Law? No explanation.

And some entries just don't make sense. Perdue's office is listed as paying heavyweight Atlanta law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge $445,207.93. The service? "Architect." But wait, I have a question about what that expenditure means — when did it take place? Eh, no telling. Just "FY08."

So pardon me for being one of the open-government enthusiasts who's unimpressed. For a website that's supposed to help "cut waste" and make government more transparent, it's more of a gadget than a tool. (Bull Moose and Erickat Peach Pundit are fans, but I must respectfully disagree with them.)

“We have taken a major step towards fully open and easily accessible accounting of how every state tax dollar is spent," Rogers said in a press release. "The very best way to prevent wasteful government spending is to let those paying the bills see exactly where their money is going.”

Yes, Joaquin Q. Taxpayer, your money is going to "consultant" and "reimbursable expense." Goooo transparency! The intention is noble, but the result is disappointing. This is a necessary and good first step, but if you want to have true transparency, show citizens what their tax dollars actually paid for. Maybe lawmakers can pass a law saying that a new entry field should be added to expense reports, one that requires a bit more detailed explanation of these services. Or at least a reference point if someone wants to file an Open Records request.

It'd be too much work to fix the problem now, especially now that state agencies have cut back on manpower. But according to the press release heralding the site's launch, state grant and contract payments to vendors will be added in 2010. Perhaps then would be a good time to also do away with the vagaries and detail the expenses?

(Cartoon courtesy of Florida Times-Union's Ed Gamble)

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