According to Following the Money 2013, a report by U.S. PIRG, the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups, state governments are publishing “checkbook-level” spending data on transparency websites and realizing significant cost savings from making this detailed financial information available. When governments publish their spending information at the checkbook level, “users can view the payments made to individual companies and details about the goods or services purchased.”
PIRG’s report points out that these actions are bringing benefits beyond transparency itself. States are also realizing significant financial savings by publishing their transactions at the checkbook level. Follow the Money provides an excellent breakdown of some of the savings states have achieved after the launch of transparency websites. Texas renegotiated contracts with prison food vendors and copy machine suppliers for tens of millions of dollars of savings. Texas also estimates an additional $4.8 million in savings by identifying areas for greater administrative efficiency. After Utah’s website revealed nearly $300,000.00 spent on bottled water, the state reduced water bottle expenditures by more than 70%. A reporter in South Dakota used that state’s transparency website to launch an investigation into subsidies that led to annual savings of about $19 million through eliminating redundancies.
The most obvious savings came from reductions in costly information requests. Massachusetts saved $3 million in paper, printing, and postage related to information requests and vendor paperwork. Mississippi estimates it saves $750 in staff time for every information request satisfied by the transparency website rather than by a state employee. After South Carolina launched its website, information requests dropped by about two-thirds.
The U.S. government does not make its spending data available at the checkbook level. The primary federal spending transparency website, USASpending.gov, publishes summary details on federal grants and contracts, but it doesn’t publish the payments that are made pursuant to each award. In addition, federal agencies are not required to publicly report internal spending. As a result, there is no way for taxpayers to see a detailed or complete picture of federal spending.
In fiscal 2010 (the last year for which complete state figures are available), federal expenditures exceeded $3 trillion, more than 150% of than the total expenditures of all states combined. How many millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved by eliminating redundant federal subsidies or programs illuminated by checkbook-level spending data? What are the costs of federal Freedom of Information Act requests that would have been unnecessary if the information could be found online? What else might taxpayers have found if they could analyze federal expenditures as they can analyze state expenditures?
States have already begun to realize hundreds of millions of dollars in savings by opening up their checkbooks to citizens, but the federal checkbook remains hidden from the taxpayers who pay the bills. The bipartisan DATA Act, which the House passed unanimously last year, would require the federal government to finally start publishing all executive branch spending – both external grants and contracts and internal expenditures – at the checkbook level.