Carl Graham Commentary: “Your government at your fingertips”

Why on earth is it easier to download descriptions of a Martian soil sample than it is to find out how much the Montana Department of Whatever spent on lawn care last year? The Montana Constitution guarantees us almost unlimited access to state financial information, but our state’s laws and technology don’t provide for that access. In effect, you have a right to know what’s being done in your name and how your tax dollars are being spent, but no practical way of finding out.

I have a lot of experience in this area. My organization has made countless records requests and even successfully sued the state for access to actual spending data. The overwhelming impression is that, while we have a right to public information, we don’t have a reasonable means of accessing it.

As our state government has increased in size and complexity, it hasn’t updated its rules or its technology to keep up with our right to know what it’s up to. Why does that matter? The harder it is for us to keep up the more likely we are to shrug and say things are just too complex for us to do anything about or for the knowledgeable few to game the system. Some folks like that. But it’s not how a participatory democracy should work. Informed citizens make informed decisions. Problem is, we simply can’t stay informed under the current setup in Montana.

It’s one thing to see a budget. That’s easy to find. But it’s quite another thing to see how that budget was executed: who got contracts, what was bought, how many people got hired, and how much was spent on any of those things? Article II Section 9 of Montana’s Constitution guarantees your right to know all that. But you don’t have a practical means of exercising that right. Sure, you can spend hours and hours surfing web sites from agency to agency and maybe track down some pieces of the puzzle. But you’re not likely to find information even as basic as what you have in your own checkbook.

Or you could make a written request to an agency or office asking for specific data. If you know where to ask, and if you ask for the right thing, and if they have a document that precisely matches your request, and if they don’t force you to travel to their office during normal business hours to make copies, you may end up happy with the result. But probably not.

And is that the best we can do in the Information Age?

I can find and buy a hydraulic cylinder for a Meyer’s sixty inch snowplow from my living room in ten minutes and with a half dozen mouse clicks. Why can’t I just as easily see how much was spent and who it went to for a snow blower the state just bought? It’s not a question of inventing something new. It’s a question of harnessing current technology in a way that makes our government more transparent and accessible. And Montana is one of only five states in the nation that hasn’t at least made an attempt to allow its citizens easy online access to their records.

This isn’t a left or right issue. U.S. PIRG, hardly a bastion of right wing ideology, released a transparency scorecard in 2012 describing state government efforts to put their spending online. Montana ranked second to last with a score of seven – that’s 07 – out of a hundred. Texas scored highest with a 98. That’s pitiful. Our state officials should be ashamed that they have failed in their basic duty to let taxpayers know how their hard earned money is being spent. And quite frankly our taxpayers should be ashamed that they haven’t demanded more accountability from their employees.

So why haven’t we done this? The only argument against putting the state checkbook online is the cost, and it’s a bogus one.

Spending websites have been done to varying degrees by the federal government and 45 states. Average implementation costs have been in the low hundreds of thousands and operating costs in the low tens of thousands of dollars across the board, with most much lower than even that. Even the federal site was only $600,000. This is a pittance compared to the benefits provided to taxpayers, legislators and even state agencies in running an accountable and transparent government.

Senator Taylor Brown has a bill draft out there that would create just such a site in Montana and bring us into the 21st century. It’s LC1316 and you should take a look at it if you think knowing where your money goes is important.

Imagine tracking a dollar out of your wallet from the time it goes into government’s coffers until it’s spent: the revenue source, appropriation, agency, program, contract, recipient, and anything else that dollar touches. That’s true transparency and openness that will let people engage with their government and hold it accountable. The technology is cheap and readily available. Almost every other state has done it. The mandate is in our state Constitution. What’s missing is the political will to make it happen. Tell your elected representatives that you want Montana’s government to be as transparent to you as you are to it.

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