CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Financial Transparency Working Group discussed several short-term improvements to state transparency Monday and began to craft a long-term vision for the group’s efforts going forward.
The group, which was formed by Gov. Mark Gordon and Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines, consists of transparency stakeholders throughout the state, including media members, private citizens and elected officials.
Racines framed the working group’s objectives into two categories. The first was pragmatic — ensuring state government entities comply, and can comply, with Wyoming’s transparency laws and policies. The second category was more philosophical — assessing whether the state’s laws and policies are facilitating the kinds of transparency the group envisions.
As the group and the state move forward with transparency improvements, Racines said they would have to weigh tradeoffs between greater transparency and the costs of providing it.
“It is a balance, making sure we’re protecting transparency, but also protecting the privacy and protected data of our citizens,” Racines said. “And then, preserving transparency, but finding a balance — how much taxpayer funds do we want to expend and how much are we comfortable spending to make sure we are as transparent as possible.”
The group discussed several near-term solutions to improve the state’s ability to fulfill records requests with timely, legible data. Racines said her office has been working internally on a transparency website that would allow residents to search and download records, which could be active in the next three to four months.
Gail Symons, a Sheridan resident who is also a member of the state’s Government Efficiency Commission, presented the group with several highly-regarded transparency websites from other states and concluded that Wyoming could explore implementing similar systems for a relatively modest price.
Gordon said he would invite data firms like OpenGov and Socrata, which currently host websites for several state governments, to present at a future working group meeting to advance discussions on the implementation of a consistent state transparency platform.
With the prospect of releasing more data to the public, Racines noted the group would also have to prepare to contend with challenges that data could create.
Racines, who took office in January, has already resolved a transparency dispute that dogged her predecessor for years. Last month, Racines released six years worth of state expenditures, fulfilling a public records request transparency groups filed in 2015 and dismissing a lawsuit brought on by a perceived delay in the response to that request.
Since the release of the expenditure data, Racines said her office has received a lot of questions about line items in the expenditures, many of which have had to be redirected to the state agency that made the purchase.
Those questions, Racines said, have highlighted some of the limitations of releasing raw data.
“Out-of-context information can breed more confusion than clarity, sometimes,” Racines said.
Gordon, who is currently drafting his first state budget, said he would like to explore ways to include more context in the budget to give citizens a sense of where and why the state is spending its money where it is.
Though providing context for every available record would be virtually impossible, the group began discussing ways to include more context with data releases going forward. It also planned to begin discussing policies for what would happen if confidential information is inadvertently released through one of these new systems.
As the state implements new public records requirements established by a bill in the latest budget session, the working group plans to educate government entities how to comply with the new law. The law will require each government entity to designate a public records official to manage records requests and respond to inquiries about them; Gordon said he hopes to compile a list of the public records officials in each entity and publish it on the state’s website in the near future.
The group has not scheduled its next meeting.
Editor’s note: The Sheridan Press’ publisher, Kristen Czaban, is a member of the Wyoming Financial Transparency Working Group.