The recent controversy in Florida around the state’s stillborn budget transparency website, as first reported by Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas, is not just another story of contract mismanagement and conflicts of interest. It raises deeper questions about Florida’s commitment to the principle of open government. It also stands in contrast to the innovative reforms that countries around the world and smaller and less-wealthy states around the country are rapidly embracing. This should be cause for concern for Floridians.
Transparency 2.0 – the now infamous website in question – was designed to give Florida’s lawmakers a granular look at the flow of taxpayer money from government agencies to outside contractors. From all accounts, it actually worked. But the state Senate never allowed the software to see the light of day and the contract with the vendor has expired, potentially burying the tool forever.
What could Florida have done differently? First, paying anyone $5 million-plus dollars to build a simple (but certainly powerful) standardized database of government fiscal information is folly in the modern era (and to accept the allegedly draconian licensing and ownership restrictions imposed by Spider Data Services is simply amateur). There are completely free, open source software tools being used by governments around the world to accomplish budget transparency but at a fraction of the cost. For an example, visit www.openspending.org and take a few minutes to browse through the budgets of Nigeria, Germany, or local governments in Bosnia-Herzegovina. That project is based on the original www.wheredoesmymoneygo.org effort in the United Kingdom that allows the British public to easily search government vendors and budget expenditures with a few clicks of the mouse, all developed with free open source software. Would it really have been difficult for Florida, the 21st largest global economy, to build a budget transparency website at not only a reasonable cost but also with total ownership and control?
The worries about Florida’s commitment to budget transparency unfortunately go beyond a website. As we discovered in compiling the State Integrity Investigation last year, which assessed all 50 states on their anti-corruption and transparency safeguards, there is no systematic annual audit of Florida’s budget. This is a basic best practice whose absence in the state boggles the mind given the size of Florida’s economy. In comparison, Louisiana, not exactly an historic bastion of transparency and good governance, performs a comprehensive and independent audit of its budget each and every year. Florida also makes little to no attempt to translate its enormous budget and fiscal expenditures into a reader-friendly citizen’s budget guide. New Jersey, another state with a legacy of fiscal abuse and pay-to-play scandals, publishes precisely such a guide each year.
These are simple, inexpensive steps that Florida could take to embrace a truly open approach to government based on the idea that government data belongs to Floridians, not government departments and bureaucrats. On February 25th, the Miami Herald and WLRN will be hosting a public conversation with Senate Democratic leader Chris Smith and Republican chair of the Senate Ethics and Elections committee Jack Latvala to explore ideas for the upcoming legislative session. This would be a good opportunity for Floridians to ask some basic questions and demand some basic action to improve the state’s fiscal transparency picture.
Nathaniel Heller is the co-founder and executive director of Global Integrity, an international non-governmental group that promotes transparent and accountable government. Global Integrity is sponsoring The Town Hall on Session 2013.
WLRN Radio and The Miami Herald will host Session 2013, on Feb. 25 at 6:30 p.m., at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. To RSVP, go to wlrn.org and click on “Town Hall.”