It was ten years ago this month that I began developing plans for what would eventually become the state’s Fiscal Transparency Website — one of the first such sites the country. The goal was to provide citizens easy access to details about how state government spends their money.
At the time, the idea of making itemized, monthly reports of state agencies’ expenditures available on the Internet was considered revolutionary. Today, however, every state has such a website. (It’s worth noting that S.C’s transparency website is one of just a handful created without legislation requiring it… and the only one I’m aware of that was created using existing internal resources. My office also maintains the site without seeking additional funding.)
Over the past decade, the open government movement has flourished: More information is on the web, and in easy to find formats. Meetings of public bodies are being live-streamed on the Internet. Laws requiring public officials to provide government records to citizens are being strengthened and modernized.
Here in S.C., nearly 40 towns, cities and counties now voluntarily show their itemized expenditures on the web. All of the state’s school districts are now required to post their transactions online, as are all public colleges and universities. My staff provided advice and support – at no cost – to any school district that needed help providing this information.
Visitors to the Comptroller’s Office website, cg.sc.gov, can find links to state contracts with vendors, as well as information about travel costs for each state agency, economic development grants, and the revenue impact of the state’s various tax credits and exemptions.
In June, I announced our latest round of enhancements to the Fiscal Transparency Website. Visitors to the site can click links to see if they’re owed money under the Treasurer’s Unclaimed Property program, view campaign contributions to political candidates, track spending bills supported by each of our state’s Congressmen, and see who’s paying lobbyists to get influence at the State House. There’s also a link to see how lottery proceeds are being used. (Because lottery revenues and expenditures are not processed through the statewide accounting system that my office operates, I had previously been unable to track these funds.) For information about the growing cost of attending college, we’ve added a report showing tuition increases at South Carolina’s public colleges over the past decade.
These enhancements are part of an ongoing effort to make as much information as possible readily accessible to citizens.
Several recent changes to state law are designed to increase transparency. Elected office-holders now must disclose their sources of personal income under an ethics reform measure intended to help weed out conflicts of interest. And a bill signed into law in May limits how much time public officials can take to respond to records requests, as well as how much they can charge citizens for copies of records.
Even in Congress there are encouraging signs on the transparency front. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have sponsored the Open Government Data Act, which would put federal data online in a downloadable and machine-readable format.
The open government movement has come a long way in the past ten years. But there’s much more that must be done if the sun is to truly shine on government. Some officials will always search for excuses to make decisions behind the scenes, keep records out of public hands, or otherwise create obstacles to transparency.
Citizens have a big role to play in the transparency movement. Let your public officials know that you expect nothing less than full transparency in government operations. The next time a politician asks for your vote remind them that trust is a two-way street – and that citizens have a valid right to know how public business is conducted and can be trusted with the information.
Richard Eckstrom is a CPA and the state’s Comptroller.