Open the Books on Government Spending

Imagine a website where you could instantly find information about the salary of your legislator or the amount of money your school district spends on textbooks. Think of a database where you could easily see how well (or poorly) government programs are performing and the amount of revenue various taxes are generating.

This degree of transparency is what Thomas Jefferson sought when he wrote, “We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”

Yet, historically, government has lived in the shadows of secrecy. But with the advent of the Internet, we now possess the technology to fully implement the vision of our founding fathers.

Across the country, efforts to make government more transparent are gaining momentum. In 2006, the federal government passed legislation creating—a federal database providing free and understandable information on government service contracts, grants, and earmarks. Two years later, the spending transparency movement is still growing. Twenty-eight states introduced spending transparency legislation in 2008, and eleven state legislatures have already passed transparency initiatives.

Kansas, as the first state to pass substantive transparency legislation, boasts one of the most comprehensive online databases for government expenditures. Online since March, KanView posts bond indebtedness, annual revenue, and expenditures (including individual grants, contracts, and transactions). The database is a single, searchable website accessible to the public and organized by categories including agency, fund, and vendor. Other outstanding examples include Oklahoma’s OpenBooks website and Missouri’s Accountability Portal, which also provides the salaries of government employees.

While Pennsylvania currently lags behind in terms of spending transparency, there are a number of efforts to provide taxpayers with additional information about their government. These include the recent open records law, Senator Patrick Browne’s proposed “Taxpayer Transparency Act”, and Senator Dominic Pileggi’s bill to post government salaries online.

As one component of the open records legislation, the Treasurer’s Office recently launched the PA Contracts E-library Database—which posts selected government contracts on the internet. Senator Browne’s bill, SB 1350, would create a taxpayer database of all transactions above $25,000 and Senator Pileggi’s legislation instructs the state government to post all government salaries online.

None of these efforts is sufficient, however. The public should be able to easily find any grant, contract, or expenditure of tax dollars, regardless of how small. Instead of several state department websites, one comprehensive database will further advance accountability. Pennsylvania legislators can learn from Texas where four separate bills on government transparency were combined to create one of the best spending databases in the nation.

Transparency is not a partisan or ideological issue. In fact, the federal database was supported by both John McCain and Barack Obama. And spending transparency need not rely on legislative action alone. Governors in six states have issued executive orders increasing transparency.

The advantages of an open government are numerous:

  • Spending databases can be created at little or no cost to taxpayers;
  • Transparency is a means for rebuilding trust and a good management tool to prevent future abuses;
  • An online database could decrease the amount of paperwork for government employees;
  • Posting grants and government contracts in an accessible format can foster competition, leading to a more efficient use of state money;
  • Transparency allows citizens to track how successful government initiatives are and critically evaluate performance results for individual expenditures.

Pennsylvania taxpayers deserve to see how all of their money is begin spent. A single searchable database, including all aspects of government spending, would allow citizens of the commonwealth to scrutinize the cost of government. With timely action Pennsylvania become a leader in providing spending transparency to those footing the bills.

# # #

Elizabeth Bryan is a Research Associate with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.