Ohio boosts local financial transparency with online checkbook

A screenshot of Ohio’s Online Checkbook.

Recently, Ohio boosted financial transparency when the Treasurer’s Office made state-level financial data easily accessible through its new online checkbook. This move took the state from near the bottom to the top spot on U.S. PIRG’s “Follow the Money” poll, a ranking of transparency in state government spending. The tool gives taxpayers easy access to information about where their tax dollars are being spent.

Now, in what appears to be the first time a state has expanded transparency initiatives to every level of local government, lawmakers are taking the state’s open data efforts a step further: Ohio state Rep. Mike Duffey, R, introduced a bill regarding public information accessibility and public office uniform accounting, HB 130, which lays out a framework for local governments to post financial information online in the existing checkbook database. The bill establishes open data formats, specifies records requirements for posting public records online and lays out uniform charts of accounting so that users can more easily compare financial data.

Last week, Sunlight and the Data Transparency Coalition wrote a joint letter in support of the bill, which would drastically improve Ohioans’ access to public data. Currently, data seekers can waste hours sifting through the various websites where information is housed and be left waiting months to retrieve information that isn’t available in electronic formats. The bill would allow municipalities to post revenue and expenses online in standardized, machine-readable formats, creating a streamlined process for users to download, share and analyze the data.

The bill makes it optional for states to post their data in the checkbook, but it is likely that local governments would choose to opt in to avoid explaining to citizens reasons why they may have chose not to make the information easier for them to find and use. Furthermore, the bill would inflict no financial burden on local governments since the state already provides the resources and framework to post the data.

It can also improve efficiency in local government by reducing waste and improving decision-making by allowing departments to easily share data and effortlessly compare their work to that of other municipalities that join the program.

State Treasurer Josh Mandel is a major supporter of the bill, saying the initiative will empower citizens to decide whether public actors are being efficient with taxpayer’s money. In April, he sent out letters inviting the state’s 3,962 local government entities to post their financial data online. Just a week later, more than 100 local governments had already expressed interest in publishing their data.

The bill is a continuation of a transparency initiative that began in the state several years ago when it put state employees’ salaries online. Its passage would be a major step forward for financial transparency and would allow the state to act as a leading example for open financial data in local governments nationwide.

To see the letter, please click here.