Idaho State Controller's Office Strikes Back at U.S. PIRG Report on Online Data Transparency

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U.S. PIRG
  • U.S. PIRG
The Idaho Office of the State Controller pushed back March 18 against a United States Public Interest Research Group report that gave Idaho an "F" for online state data transparency.

"[U.S. PIRG] has no credibility with our office," said Chief Deputy Controller Dan Goicoechea.

The report, titled "Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," is the nonprofit's sixth annual report rating the completeness and ease of use of each state's online information about how they spend taxpayer dollars, including corporate tax incentives, purchasing goods and services, and state contracts.

Each state was given a letter grade and Idaho joined Alaska and California among states that received an "F" for not meeting multiple transparency standards—including not giving the public online access to data on tax subsidies for economic development or tax expenditure reports.

When U.S. PIRG researchers offered states their findings, the report said that the Gem State was one of three states that did not give researchers feedback, but Goicoechea said that his office never heard from researchers about their conclusions.
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“They gave us an ‘F’ without any comment at all,” he said.

Goicoechea was quick to condemn the report, saying that it used a single rubric to judge states’ online transparency access regardless of their economic profiles or statutory differences.

“We don't have any respect for their rating system,” Goicoechea said. “It tries to apply one template to all 50 states without looking at the laws that pertain to those states.” 

In other words, a measure of what counts as transparency in Texas or Pennsylvania may not be applicable in Idaho, and vice versa. Beyond that, however, is the question of user experience: Is the public satisfied with what and how information can be accessed? Goicoechea said the answer is “yes.”

“I’ve been here 13 years. In all our years, not once have we had one citizen complain that they could not get the information they needed,” he said.

Idaho's online portal to state government data is Transparent Idaho, which was launched in 2013 and designed to make state government data available to the public. Despite the website, Idaho's U.S. PIRG transparency grade fell from a "C" in 2013 to an "F" in 2014.

"Idaho's transparency websites fail in part because they do not provide any information on the recipients of economic development subsidies. Additionally, Idaho does not link to tax expenditure reports from its portal."

U.S. PIRG "Following the Money 2015" 
Following the Money 2015 Read the report here.
While U.S. PIRG Senior Analyst Phineas Baxandall said Idaho has made strides in making more information available online, the state still has work to do making systems that make accessing that information more user friendly. For instance, being able to determine what information is and is not available online could be a step forward for the state.

“We think that there can be legitimate reasons why a state might not put up every dollar. But at least listing what kinds of things, what agencies are excluded, is essential for having a debate about where those boundaries should be,” he said.

That would mean doing what Ohio has done in the past year—making more information available online while also adding keyword searches and an auto-filling feature to its transparency website search bar. In 2014, U.S. PIRG gave the Buckeye State a “D-.” This year, it received an “A+.”

Baxandall said that Idaho’s path to a better grade on next year’s report could be similar to Ohio’s. While some Idaho information, like state economic development subsidies and vendor-specific spending information, can still be tricky to find, Transparent Idaho’s ease of use could be improved.

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“We look at search because you can't find out something without search capabilities,” he said. “Can you search by department? Keyword? Then we look at things such as off-budget agencies, economic development subsidies. Are those kinds of things also listed?”

For U.S. PIRG, a portion of the significance of public access to state data is starting conversations about how money and resources are used. It’s part of how the public holds state government accountable—and a way for  the public to sniff out corruption.

According to the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, Idaho scored a “D-,” making it  the ninth most corrupt state in the U.S.

Part of that score was a “C-,” or 72 percent, for public access to information, including a score of 75 percent for the legal right of citizens to access information and 69 percent for the effectiveness of that access.

Corruption can mean many things to many people—not least of all the people who measure corruption. The State Integrity Investigation used 14 criteria to grade states' risk of corruption, including public access to information; executive, legislative and judicial accountability; ethics enforcement; state budget processes; and civil service management.

Another corruption report from 2014, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” used the number of public officials convicted for violations of federal corruption laws in each state, then indexed that measure with population and employment. By those measures, Idaho ranked as the 15th and 13th least corrupt state in the union, respectively.

That rankled Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, who wrote in a Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics blog post that approaching corruption from the standpoint of convictions “suffers from several significant problems,” including incomplete data, failing to incorporate the resources available to prosecute corruption in each state, partisan bias, time lag between crimes and convictions, and the relative seriousness of the crimes.

In their rankings—based on a survey of journalists from each state—illegal corruption like bribes are “not at all common” in any of Idaho’s three branches of government. Bribes were found to be “not at all common” and “moderately common” in so-called “legal corruption,” defined as corruption that is legal but even seemingly unethical. Researchers based their study on the perception of journalists because they have “a better knowledge of state governments and spend a great deal of time observing the government officials and interacting with them.”

"Idaho, North and South Dakota and the majority of the New England states—Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—are perceived to be the least corrupt states."

"Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the Corruption in America Survey," Dec. 1, 2014
While academic studies wrestle with the problem of how to measure and define government corruption, a few experts have noted how the Internet and access to government information is changing public perceptions about it. 

Boise State University Associate Professor of Political Science Jaclyn Kettler said that increased online access to government data has begun to shift the definition of corruption from quid-pro-quo relationships and under-the-table deals, to campaign finance and misuse of taxpayer funds. Searchable databases are allowing the public and the media to piece together trends and patterns of behavior more quickly and efficiently.

Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler. - BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Boise State University
  • Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler.
“I do think we’re seeing some changes, and we’re not just focusing on the big stories, like the Oregon governor [John Kitzhaber] and his partner. I think we’ll start to see more of the identifying of minor violations of the law, these smaller types of things,” she said.

“Smaller” criminal and ethical violations on the part of government officials could include the series of scandals that ousted Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, who was reimbursed for about 170,000 miles on his personal car, which, when checked, registered about 80,000 miles on its odometer. As political bribery, blackmailing and murder become more rare, fraud and unethical behaviors are replacing them in the media.

That shift is having consequences for public appreciation of lawmakers.

“I think people increasingly are talking about money and politics and how it’s all corrupt. It’s a very negative evaluation. These stories compound that attitude,” Kettler said.

While there may be a correlation between corruption and the public’s ability to access state data online, Baxandall indicated that such a correlation may be more sophisticated than meets the eye.

“What’s the cause [of corruption]? What’s the effect? A place that’s generally considered to be fairly corrupt might have a fairly good ranking [in the U.S. PIRG report]; it could be that the past corruption causes the good transparency—or the new transparency shows the present corruption,” he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described The State Public Integrity Investigation as a report of corruption. It is, in fact, a report on states' risk of corruption.