Transparency

A year or so ago, I tried to find the number of people employed by the state of Minnesota. It took more than a dozen phone calls to find an agency of state government that knew, and even then the data was more than a year old.

So it’s no surprise that Minnesota is one of the 19 states that hasn’t set up a Web site to track how federal stimulus money is going to be spent, according to the Web site, ProPublica, which tracks these things.

At the same time, it’s also not surprising to read in today’s Star Tribune that one of the governor’s policy advisors (why can’t people who run the state agency’s on behalf of the governor be his policy advisors?) is actually paid through the budget of seven state agencies.

What is surprising is that anyone could figure it out. Minnesota is not a candidate for “transparent state of the year.”

The Minnesota Office and Management and Budget, formerly the Minnesota Department of Finance, posts — for example — salary information on its Web site, with information for eight different unions. As long as you’re on the union’s bargaining team and understand 11 different “step ranges” (or even know what a step range is) and 16 different “comp codes” (and what they are) you can figure out how much an information technology specialist makes. But you can’t find out how many there, what they do, or whether we need so many of them.

A total compensation report is somewhat more illustrative of our budget dollars in the executive branch, but not for mere humans who want to figure out whether (a) money is being well spent and (b) how.

“Transparency” is the new buzz word in government. it’s meant to provide all the details of where the money goes. It’s mostly a dodge. Transparency isn’t just throwing a blizzard of numbers at you for you to sort out, transparency is making it easy to sort out.

President Barack Obama’s recovery.gov Web site is a good example. It intends to follow how the economic stimulus money is being spent, but there’s no indication that it will. It’s “news” section is simply puffed-up press releases to tout components of the plan. A section on “justice grants,” for example, tells us about money being thrown at anti-crime programs, but it doesn’t tell us that while the president promoted a graduating class of police recruits as evidence the stimulus plan is working, it doesn’t mention that subsequent classes for potential recruits have been canceled.

A link on the page sends us to the Justice Department to find out how much each state will get. There, we download a spreadsheet for Minnesota and learn, for example, that $19,000 of the $2 billion is trickling down to South St. Paul. How is it going to be used? Call South St. Paul (Note: I did. I had to leave a message.). Now repeat that for every line item in the stimulus package and you’ve got your transparency. More likely? People trying to figure out will give up.

Is there a better way to do this? ProPublica thinks so; it points to Missouri’s Web site to track how stimulus money will be spent. It lists only $223 million received for Medicare reimbursement, so far. But it provides e-mail alerts and RSS feeds as the money is spent.

It also has an area for people to make suggestions on how the money can be spent but, unfortunately, like the Minnesota Legislature’s “submit your idea about the budget,” it keeps the suggestions to themselves. Why?

How will we know whether the money is being spent correctly? The Boston Herald reports today that the feds are planning to go undercover to “monitor whether unqualified applicants try to obtain stimulus funds.” That must be under the “spies” line-item.

Don’t look for it on a Web site, though.

  • John Mumma

    ALL states track financial appropriations.

    NO states have a system for tracking GRANTS. Ask pesky questions about this and you find out they track appropriations and expendatures, not the actual activity.

    Grants is the biggest component of federal spending and the biggest component of the stimulus.

    Grants are generally specific as to their intended service delivery or outcome. Grants are generally time bound. Grants will require additional reporting to confirm the services are delivered in the prescribed manner by a specific deadline. Accountability web sites like MO show financial data. These sites don’t show services delivered within the time frame of the grant. At best they show checks being cut.

    This is the biggest gaping hole in the entire accountability scheme and NOBODY seems to understand it!

  • Paul

    This ties back to the privatization story a while back. A point that I made was that the whole privatization scheme was a product of faith rather than rational analysis, now you see what I was talking about. Someone promises to make government more efficient, but even the basic data that would allow you to measure efficiency is completely obscured. I think the sorry state of transparency is no accident. You have a governor who has promising efficiency and delivering on budget crises after another despite living the dream of tax cuts and small government for several years. Who want anyone to be able to actually look at how many state employees are left, how many have been replaced by contractors, and what all these people are doing?

    The number of state employees has gone down, the individual unions can give you those numbers. But outside contractors have been hired to replace some of them, and how do you count them? Do the French folks who administer the toll lane on 394 work for the state? They may not be state employees but their income is derived from state income.

    Of course, as Pawlenty has demonstrated, all this creates a lot of room for plenty of Enron accounting ploys.

    I think an interesting question is whether or not these matters have become more obscure over the last ten years or so.