Ohio’s State and Local Governments Partner for the Most Ambitious Transparency Initiative in America

POPULATION: 11.6 Million  |  AGENCY TYPE: State  |  ANNUAL BUDGET: $69 Million

Two Statistics Plagued the State of Ohio


Today, the State of Ohio can credibly claim to have the most ambitious and successful financial transparency effort in U.S. history. But if it weren’t for State Treasurer Josh Mandel, State Auditor Dave Yost, and their staff, two statistics would have continued to haunt Ohio’s state and local governments. These statistics reflected an erosion in the trust and accountability forming the bedrock of our democratic society.

The first statistic was 46.

Ohio ranked 46th when the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG)’s annual Following the Money Report graded Ohio’s financial transparency when compared to other states in 2014.

The second number was 65 percent.

65 percent of Americans had searched online for government data in the past twelve months, according the Pew Research Center in 20151 Demand for public information was high, but Ohio’s governments were unable to deliver.

The team understood that these statistics and the failures they reflected were not an amorphous problem whose solution Ohio could perpetually delay. Instead, they realized a lack of trust and accountability affects both citizens and civic leaders every day.

Consider a business contemplating moving into Ohio and providing much-needed job growth and tax revenue. Without clear financial transparency from the government, how could the business make an informed decision about where to set up shop?

Or elected officials. How can they hold informed financial conversations with citizens if residents cannot access the necessary information?

And finally, as Mandel emphasized, all elected officials and staff work for the taxpayers. Citizens – from the school teacher to the factory worker to the doctor – are the bosses. They had a right to see how Ohio’s state and local governments spend hard-earned tax dollars.

Ohio’s state and local governments were falling short by trapping data in complex PDFs and spreadsheets. At 46th place, they were among the worst performing states in America.

This case study will demonstrate how the State of Ohio achieved the following by adopting OpenGov:

  • Improved Transparency Grade. After receiving one of the lowest financial transparency scores in U.S. PIRG’s annual assessment, Ohio achieved a perfect score the following year.
  • Expanded Access to Local Financial Data. The State Treasurer’s office developed a statewide transparency program encompassing local financial data, thereby empowering both citizens and governments by substantially expanding access to once-limited information.
  • Saved Local Governments Time. Local governments using OpenGov have experienced reductions in time-consuming public records requests, saving valuable staff time.
  • Saved Local Governments Money. Local governments also report using the platform to research vendor pricing for other localities in Ohio, as well as receiving more competitive bids from vendors that have used the platform for their own pricing research.

OhioCheckbook.com clearly presents each agency’s financial breakdown by year.


A Phased Approach


Treasurer Mandel, Auditor Yost, Deputy Treasurer Seth Metcalf, and the rest of the Treasurer’s office set out to solve Ohio’s transparency problem and restore citizen trust in government.

The team adopted a phased approach. During phase one, Ohio published salary data for state employees and school personnel online. Phase two promoted greater transparency in state-owned properties. Phase three shared state expenditure data.

It paid off. Today, U.S. PIRG’s Following the Money report ranks Ohio as first in the nation for financial transparency, earning the report’s first and only perfect score in 2016. As the report said, “Ohio’s site still leads the pack, with intuitive ‘Google-style’ search bars, options to instantly share interesting findings, and easily navigable ‘compare’ features that allow users to contextualize the data they are reviewing.”


Transparency Goes Local


Treasurer Mandel and Auditor Yost were not content opening the books for just Ohio’s state government, however. They wanted to take financial transparency further than anyone else had in the country.

They recognized that, in addition to state agencies, Ohio’s residents also interact with towns, cities, counties, schools, and special districts. Hard-earned tax dollars fund each of these entities. However, only 7 percent of Americans believe their local governments effectively share data, according to Pew.

Ohio decided to address this by providing over 4,000 local agencies with an online checkbook. In April 2015, the Treasurer’s office decided to partner with OpenGov – the market leader in government performance solutions – to build and deploy the checkbooks. Mandel sent a letter to more than 18,000 local government officials asking them to upload their financials online.

The initiative received widespread, rapid support from Ohio’s local governments – more than 100 agencies responded to Mandel’s letter within a week. Anthony Traficanti, Chair of the Board of Commissioners for Mahoning County, the first county to adopt checkbook, explained “This is about a common cause, and this is about doing what is right. Whether you’re Republican or Democrat, this is what we do for the taxpayers of this country.”

Each agency works with OpenGov directly to publish a searchable database of expenditures information from over the past several years. Residents can easily see expenditures by department, expense type, and more.


Ohio’s Checkbook Initiative Enjoys Rapid Success


Today, hundreds of local agencies have deployed OpenGov’s checkbook, with more joining each week. Here are just some of the benefits participating agencies have obtained:

Press coverage. When an agency launches its checkbook, local press frequently publish stories highlighting the agency’s success. For example, the Jackson County Times, wrote a story with the headline “Jackson County’s Spending Becomes More Transparent.” The article quoted several elected county officials. Good press isn’t just good optics. It sends a signal to residents that the agency takes trust and accountability seriously.

Reduced freedom of information requests. Embracing financial transparency reduces information requests, saving government staff valuable hours while simultaneously empowering citizens. Many of Ohio local agencies have reported these time savings.

Engaged residents. Thousands of residents have visited local government checkbook sites to explore data. Residents feel more informed on and engaged in their communities’ spending decisions than ever before.

Increased insights into vendor payments. Numerous cities have reported reviewing other agencies’ checkbooks when negotiating with vendors to ensure fair pricing. Vendors also use the data to offer competitive bids to local agencies. These examples demonstrate one advantage of a network: bringing hundreds of entities in the same state on a shared platform increases the benefits to each participant. The more entities on the platform the better.


7% of national survey respondents say local governments share data very effectively. OhioCheckbook.com introduced a statewide transparency program encompassing local financial data.


After receiving one of the lowest financial transparency scores in U.S. PIRG’s annual assessment, Ohio achieved a perfect score the following year.

Results

  • Improved Transparency Grade.

    After receiving one of the lowest financial transparency scores in U.S. PIRG’s annual assessment, Ohio achieved a perfect score the following year.

  • Expanded Access to Local Financial Data.

    The State Treasurer’s office developed a statewide transparency program encompassing local financial data, thereby empowering both citizens and governments by substantially expanding access to once-limited information.

  • Saved Local Governments Time.

    Local governments using OpenGov have experienced reductions in time-consuming public records requests, saving valuable staff time.

  • Saved Local Governments Money.

    Local governments also report using the platform to research vendor pricing for other localities in Ohio, as well as receiving more competitive bids from vendors that have used the platform for their own pricing research.

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