Open Data Advocates Like Ohio Transparency Moves, But Want More

Screenshot from Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel's OhioCheckbook.com.
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There's an increasing amount of information online about what government is doing. And for data nerds, public spending watchdogs or the unapologetically nosy, it's exciting. But while open data advocates are happy with what's being offered, they also say they want more. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports.

Ohiocheckbook.com has been online for several months, featuring seven fiscal years of state spending—a total of $408 billion, accessorized by great graphics and cool color charts. And it's searchable—for instance, by agency or by vendor.  

State Treasurer Josh Mandel said his office was able to do this because the state is on one uniform accounting system. Now he's asked cities, counties, townships and school districts to join in, but he admits that creates a huge challenge.

"With the local governments, you've got roughly 4,000 of them, and they're on hundreds of different accounting systems," Mandel said. "Some of the larger local governments and school districts are on very advanced, intricate accounting systems. And some of the smaller townships still do some of their accounting on legal pads, and everything in between."

Mandel is hoping to have the first local government data on Ohiocheckbook.com this summer. But he admitted it will be a while to get everything online, especially if most local governments sign up—which is what he said he's hoping to get, without spending a lot of time and money to make it happen.

"We don't have to get to 3,900 to get to 3,900," Mandel said . "I think we need to get to a tipping point, and at a certain tipping point, it will become uncomfortable for certain local governments and schools districts to not have their information online, because their constituents and their taxpayers are going to start asking, 'What do you have to hide? If the town next door or the school district next door has it online, why don't we have it online as well?'"

It's easy for a skeptic to look at efforts like the state checkbook project and wonder what's really behind it.

Catherine Turcer with Common Cause Ohio might be one of those skeptics, since she's been a critic of Mandel for hiring political friends, for the spending in his Senate campaign and during the scandal involving fundraiser Ben Suarez.

But she says she's totally behind Mandel on this.

"When they actually do something good, like Josh Mandel did in this case, that needs to be supported," Turcer said. "Because that state checkbook, I think it's the best thing since sliced bread. It's easy to navigate, it's easy to understand, you can do comparisons between different budgets."

Jill Miller Zimon runs OpenNEO, which is working to create a way to share lots of data among governments, nonprofits, businesses, academic institutions and citizens in Northeast Ohio. She's cautiously optimistic too, but highlight one big point for data experts.

"This is a really important first effort of this magnitude here in the state of Ohio, and we shouldn't lose sight of that. But what's also really important to remember is that we're talking about just financial data," Miller Zimon said. "Open data, civic open data, public data goes far beyond what we see just in terms of finances."

The Republican Mandel touts Ohio's No. 1 ranking for financial data transparency from the liberal-leaning Public Interest Research Group.

But Miller Zimon said while that's good news, Ohio lags behind some states in a recent study by the national watchdog Better Government Association in public records accessibility, open meetings, whistleblower protection and conflicts of interest among lawmakers. But she's hopeful. 

"I think what this does is provoke more engagement between the people who are making decision and the people whose money we're talking about, I think that that's a good thing," Miller Zimon said.

And Turcer noted that there's plenty of government information that's not online—for instance, about JobsOhio, which gets an official review by a private contractor and not the state auditor. And she also said only the House and Senate Finance Committees are recorded and archived, leaving hundreds of hours of testimony, comments and questions about bills in dozens of committees and subcommittees every year unheard and not able to be accessed.

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