In today’s digital world we track packages online, manage our bank accounts and bills from our cellphones, easily compare property values in our neighborhoods and regularly pull up satellite images of any address we might want to reach. Regarded at first as mere conveniences, these tools are now seen by many as everyday necessities as they help us steer through our busy lives. Today, 10 percent of retail dollars are spent via the Internet rather than in brick-and-mortar stores, and surveys state that 40 percent of respondents feel more comfortable interacting online than in person. If we can manage our own lives online, shouldn’t our government also provide online tools to understand and access data about spending decisions that use our tax dollars and affect us every day?
Until recently, government was considered open and transparent if a citizen could navigate the red tape to find the right government building, wait in line, fill out some forms, and eventually emerge triumphant with the information they wanted. Even then, data was frequently outdated, incomplete or just too difficult to efficiently analyze.
Today, budget transparency needs to mean something else to reflect the world in which we live: online, one-stop, comprehensive, searchable and downloadable. And fortunately online spending transparency is moving in that direction and beginning to change the way that government does business. For instance, millions of dollars have been saved across the country through reducing costly information requests; increasing competition for state contracts; and identifying and eliminating inefficient spending.
For the past six years, the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund has been grading and guiding how well Arizona provides access to economic data. Arizona has come a long way since we first released our Following the Money report – this year earning a “B” in spending transparency. Arizonans can now search openbooks.az.gov for contracts and expenditures with checkbook-level detail by recipient, keyword and agency. However, in order for our state to receive an “A” grade for spending transparency, citizens and state officials in Arizona need to be provided with checkbook-level detail for economic development subsidies, including projected and actual public benefits – such as what is provided about the Arizona Competes Fund.
Particularly, at a time when Arizona faces difficult budget choices, Arizonans should be able to see how each dollar gets spent. Transparency promotes fiscal responsibility, bolsters public confidence in government, and checks corruption. The standards for transparency are advancing rapidly. Our elected officials need to continue to lead the charge in the march toward budget transparency.
Diane E. Brown
Arizona PIRG Education Fund
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