States of Transparency: Tennessee
The Open Government Directive encouraged states to put valuable government data online. In this series we're reviewing each state's efforts in this direction.
This week: Tennessee
The open government site for the state of Tennessee offers checkbook-level spending data, but would be extremely frustrating to serious researchers looking to do their own analysis. It's just not laid out in a computer-friendly way.
Currently, spending information is available in PDF format. It isn't searchable by vendor name or spending type, and isn't downloadable in any machine-readable format. And it's updated quarterly.
It's easy to see why the site falls short. Like other state spending sites, Tennessee's Opengov was created by an eager governor but has been starved of dedicated funding in these tough economic times.
Since the page was first launched in May of 2009, no employees have been dedicated specifically to the project either. Lola Potter with the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration defended the lack of staff, saying that making do with less is what state governments do best. Still, she said, we'll have to wait until more funds roll in before we'll see some of the most important items on her wishlist: real-time (or nearly real-time) updates and downloadable data.
According to Potter, transparency in government has been a major priority for Governor Phil Bredesen, but the state simply hasn't had the funds to upgrade so far. "Our understanding is the software [that's required to put out real-time accounting data] is quite expensive, so that's not going to happen until at least 2012," she said. And margins are thin throughout the Tennessee government. Agencies have reduced their budgets by an average of 21 percent, Potter said, and $1.2 billion has been cut from the state budget over a two-year period.
Downloadability: Information is in PDF format. Difficult to import into a spreadsheet or database and analyze.
Timeliness: Expenditures are available quarterly; employee payroll is available semi-annually.
Expenditures: Checkbook-level. Could give better descriptions for each payment, but otherwise relatively detailed. You can find them here.
Revenues: The Department of Revenue offers basic breakdowns by tax category on a monthly basis, but it's a little difficult to find. You have to click on the link to each month's revenues and then scroll down to the bottom of the press release. Here's the July breakdown.
These PDFs are difficult to use, because they appear to have been scanned from paper documents, which makes them especially difficult to import into a spreadsheet. Also, a list of state taxes can be found here.
Payroll: The latest data is from March. It's searchable by name. Includes lower rung employees like Admin Secretary.
Tax Expenditures: Basic information on Tennessee's tax incentives is available here.