SHERIDAN — Wyoming received a failing grade for its government spending transparency website in a report that analyzed access to online government spending data in the 50 states.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund released the report, titled “Following the Money 2018: How the 50 states Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” this week. It is the eighth such report the group has released. The last report, released in 2016, gave Wyoming a C for its online spending transparency.
Michelle Surka, a program director with the PIRG Education Fund, said this year the group incorporated focus groups into its analysis of state spending sites, which caused the grades of most states to drop. She also said the standards applied to sites increase each year, as the technology to implement more transparent websites becomes more accessible.
“Technology is improving at rapid rates. What was not possible in 2010 is more than possible in 2018,” Surka said. “Really, we’re asking states to keep up with the pace of technology of the internet and make their data accessible to people who are used to navigating [sites like] Google.”
Surka said the primary reason Wyoming saw its grade plummet was the lack of a fully functional search feature. She explained that the state has its information online, but accessing it requires users to already have gathered specific information. For instance, if a user wanted to look up how much money the state spent on paving roads, that user would need to know the name of the vendor who did the paving. West Virginia, which received the highest grade for transparency with an A+, allows users to search for spending items by department names, category of spending and keywords.
Surka added that the site the grade was primarily based on Wyoming’s Department of Administration and Information website. Dean Fausset, the director of the DIA, did not respond to a request for comment. Wyoming State Auditor Cynthia Cloud said she is aware of the state’s issues with online transparency, but correcting them will require money.
“It takes legislative investment to accomplish what we’re trying to do,” Cloud said.
Cloud also pointed to West Virginia’s website as an example of what the state is looking to accomplish; she said she presented the site to the Joint Appropriations Committee during the most recent budget session in hopes of getting funds to update Wyoming’s site but was not awarded those funds.
Cloud estimates it would cost $435,000 for the biennium to update Wyoming’s websites. She said she presented another request for funding to the Efficiency Commission Thursday.
Because some of the data in the state’s uniform accounting system is confidential, Cloud said the process for improving transparency is more complicated, and costly, then simply updating the existing website. The state would have to purchase new software to overlay the accounting system with rules that will extract public data and exclude confidential data.
Surka noted that states that invest in more transparent websites often save money in the long run.
“[More transparent sites mean] people don’t have to answer [Freedom of Information Act] requests or dig through invoices; they just tend to make government overall more efficient and more democratic,” Surka said.
Cloud said her office is trying to provide citizens with stop gap measures, like listing the last 60-days worth of vendor information on Google Sheets. However, she said finding a way to develop a more transparent site is one of her office’s chief priorities.