Getting everyone to vote is hard enough. We will not pretend the public will gravitate to a new Missouri website intended to boost transparency about state government finances.
Nevertheless, this initiative of State Treasurer Eric Schmitt — ShowMeCheckbook.mo.gov — is a notable step. The site has practical application, especially for state government data geeks, and it demonstrates a needed commitment to allowing the public to scrutinize state spending.
“Before the launch of Show-Me Checkbook, financial transparency tools across state government in Missouri were complicated, outdated and disconnected,” the Missouri Press Association says.
“This new website gives Missourians easier access to crucial information about how their government operates, which is a step in the right direction toward greater transparency.”
The complaints from the press group were shared by many. The new website debuts just months after the Public Interest Research Group gave Missouri a grade of D+ for financial transparency.
PIRG and others faulted the state for making it difficult to find data and not providing adequate tools for analyzing the numbers. Both issues are addressed in the new website.
Schmitt says the website is “powered by over 20 million individual data points,” making it one of the most comprehensive government portals in the country. He adds it creates a “one-stop-shop,” featuring information on spending, revenue, payrolls, debt and cash flow across state government.
The success of this venture is partly due to the involvement of a wide swath of experts in government accounting and data analysis. The website draws on data from the state’s accounting system and from state agency reports.
It is possible, using the site’s search engine, to call up all of the state’s payments to a particular person or vendor. In a separate section, users are given the opportunity to search for the payroll information on any state employee.
Other states report similar ventures have produced significant cost-savings. North Carolina, for one, said the initiative led to a reform of that state’s purchasing laws.
For individuals and businesses, the site opens up a new level of scrutiny in examining who else is providing services to the state and what is the extent of those arrangements. In similar fashion, citizen budget watchdogs can plumb deeply into specific spending practices.
These purposes also are well served by one final feature: At the bottom of each page of the website, users are invited to share any interesting or concerning data trends they come across while using the site.