SHERIDAN — State Auditor Kristi Racines unveiled a website that will give Wyoming residents a glimpse of the state’s “checkbook” during the Wyoming Financial Transparency Working Group’s meeting in Cheyenne Wednesday.
The site, Wyopen.gov, allows visitors to search a database of expenditure data from several state government agencies. Its launch represents a concrete step toward improving access to Wyoming’s financial records, which both Racines and Gov. Mark Gordon — who partnered to create the working group — have made a priority.
The state’s ability to provide digital access to its financial records has been in doubt in recent years, with former State Auditor Cynthia Cloud’s office facing a lawsuit for failing to fulfill a request for vendor data submitted by Openthebooks.com. Cloud said that the state’s outdated software made scrubbing confidential data from expenditure records an arduous task.
In February, however, Racines released six years’ worth of state expenditure data to Openthebooks, fulfilling its request. Wyopen offers public access to much of that data through a searchable database.
“What we are really trying to do is be proactive and get this information online, available, easy and in a usable format,” Racines said.
Racines stressed that the site — which her office created in-house — is a work in progress, though. There are significant holes in the records stored on the site because much of the state’s expenditure data is considered confidential; the database does not include payroll data, for instance.
The site has also highlighted what Racines sees as a more fundamental obstacle to financial transparency: The legibility of the records to the average Wyoming resident.
Racines admitted that some of the records are still difficult to parse through because the coding the Wyoming State Auditor’s office has traditionally used to track its purchases has filled the database with thousands of extraneous codes.
“However basic or sophisticated our platform is, you are limited to the quality and the structure of the data you have,” Racines said.
Further, Wyopen’s database does not contain the state’s budget, which Racines said will make it difficult for residents to consider expenditures as part of a larger context. That may have more to do with the intricacy of the budget than platform limitations, though, she noted.
“You can only simplify a large, complex operation so much,” Racines said.
Both Racines and Gordon have said they would like to explore ways to improve the clarity of the state’s budget.
The process of tweaking Wyopen over the coming months will guide the working group’s efforts. The group tasked Sheridan-resident Gail Symons with reviewing effective transparency sites from other states and recommending steps Wyoming could take to replicate their success.
However, Symons said monitoring the development of Wyopen could help the group establish metrics that would help it evaluate alternative options, such as purchasing a more sophisticated platform.
“The recommendation is basically: Go with what we’ve already got,” Symons said.
Racines advocated a similar approach.
“Is it the ultimate answer? We don’t know,” Racines said. “Here’s where the value is: If we put this out for six months, or a year, or two years, we’re going to get a lot of feedback.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban is a member of the state’s Financial Transparency Working Group.