Hawaii Gets An ‘F’ For Its Transparency On State Government Spending

A transparency website is meant to provide the public easy access to information, but it isn’t always updated quickly.

By Courtney Teague

Honolulu Civil Beat — May 8, 2018

Original story: http://www.civilbeat.org/2018/05/hawaii-gets-an-f-for-its-transparency-on-state-government-spending/

 

A measure that would have required the state to publish the formulas used to calculate the financial impact of proposed bills died in the Legislature in the recently adjourned session.

That probably came as no surprise to public interest researchers who say the state government needs to be more open about its spending practices.

Hawaii is among the worst in the nation when it comes to being transparent about the way state government spends its money, according to a new study of state transparency sites.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund gave the Aloha State an F for transparency, two grades lower than the C it received in the last report two years ago. California, Alaska and Wyoming were the only states to score lower.

That’s because the state’s transparency webpage hasn’t updated its spending information since 2016, said Michelle Sirka, tax and budget campaigns director for the PIRG fund. The same is true for budget information on the webpage.

The report also found the webpage was glitch-prone and lacked a multi-tiered search function.

Gov. David Ige’s administration has made strides in improving government accessibility online — such as modernizing the state payroll and tax systems — but there’s more to be done, said Christine Mai‘i Sakuda, head of the nonprofit Transform Hawaii Government. The agency advocates for a more open and transparent government through technology.

Sakuda wondered whether the state has set a plan and priorities for updating information on its website. It’s not just the transparency webpage that contains outdated information, she said.

“Clearly the data not being up is a reflection of no one’s eyes are on that and thought that it was important enough to update, which is unfortunate and not acceptable,” Sakuda said.

Brian Black, head of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, presented testimony on the issue at a meeting before the state’s Information Technology Steering Committee last week. Part of the committee’s role includes developing plans for and assessing state IT systems.

Black’s testimony, drafted after meeting with groups who support accessible data, suggested the state prioritize posting financial, tax and procurement data, plus certain data from the departments of Health, Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and Land and Natural Resources.

He recommended the state educate the public on available data and ensure it’s posted in a timely manner and machine readable format, meaning the file can be easily opened on a computer.

“Providing a central site for electronic data allows the public to find information efficiently,” Black wrote.

The state plans to follow those priorities when revamping its website, said Todd Nacapuy, head of the Office of Enterprise Technology Services, which oversees the transparency webpage.

The spending data won’t be posted to the transparency site in the immediate future, but Laurel Johnston, head of the Department of Budget and Finance, noted it is already posted to her department’s webpage.

“The data is there, it’s just maybe not the way that PIRG or others might want it so they can compare by state,” Johnston said.

The vendor that the Office of Enterprise Technology Services currently uses to host its data, Socrata, is expensive, Nacapuy said. A contract with a new vendor should be finalized within the next month and a half — that’s when the state will start work on posting the latest spending data to its transparency page.

U.S. PIRG wasn’t impressed with Hawaii’s site, but Nacapuy pointed to ETS’s Department Dashboard, which launched this year.

It breaks down a timeline of IT projects by state department and shows the cost, whether they’re on track and its project managers. The dashboard ensures accountability of the state’s IT projects, he said, adding that it’s the first such site in the nation.

Senate Bill 2257 would have required the Department of Taxation to make public the formulas used to calculate the financial impact of a bill. It died two weeks ago in conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers attempt to work out differences.

The Tax Foundation of Hawaii wrote in testimony that the availability of information about those estimates was “spotty at best.”

“Having the information would be a great step toward openness and transparency in important legislative decisions,” the group wrote.

The Hawaii Community Foundation’s Omidyar Ohana Fund supports Transform Hawaii Government. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

Additionally, The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.

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