Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak before the Florida Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability regarding Transparency 2.0. (The full video may be seen by clicking the photo above or clicking here).
Transparency 2.0 is a web site developed under contract on behalf of the Florida Senate. The project became controversial when it became public that the $5.5 million contract was awarded without going through the competitive bid process. It has been reported that the contract was awarded to a close friend of the former Senate President’s Chief of Staff.
The internet project was intended to be a compilation of more than 16,000 state contracts. Access to the site, however, was limited to Senators and their staff.
With the help of Barbara Petersen of the Florida First Amendment Foundation and Senate President Don Gaetz I was given access to the web site. As it turns out none of the Senators on the Committee for Government Oversight and Accountability had been given access to the site. Senator Gaetz asked me to give feed-back to the Committee on the value of the site and input as to whether the Senate should continue to fund the program at an annual cost of more than $1 million.
While I found the web site to be of some value, due to its limited search capabilities utility is limited. For example, users are unable to easily identify state contracts with Section 287.058 provisions (requiring access to public records). More importantly, the site contains only summaries of state contracts, not the actual contracts.
My comments were proceeded by Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida an outstanding Florida based government watch-dog group. Integrity Florida had also been given access to Transparency 2.0. Krassner gave a thoughtful analysis of the site and explained to the Committee some of the site’s functionality and the benefits of having a centralized database of state contracts.
Part of the discussion of the Committee related to what appear to be redundancies among various state web sites that purport to offer transparency to government budgetary processes.
In my opinion many of the sites, including Transparency 2.0, are an inch deep and a mile wide. There are redundancies, however, none of the sites provide meaningful access to primary records. That is not intended to be a criticism, rather it is, I think, an objective critique.
Both Integrity Florida and I urged the Committee to consider making more records easily available to the public. It is my considered opinion that by making raw data (including contracts) available to the public, there would be much greater transparency and oversight of government spending.
As I pointed out to the Committee, while Florida has the most generous public records laws in the United States, enforcement is left to individual citizens. By making records more accessible via the internet, the state could see substantial savings by eliminating or at least greatly reducing the need for individuals to make copious public records requests. This would also reduce the need for litigation when state agencies fail to comply with public records requests in a timely manner.
Another benefit to making primary records more easily available to the public is that it would allow more citizens to become involved in the oversight process. Instead, the records are often times difficult to access and as a result there is less oversight and more waste.
In the final analysis, I believe that the Florida Legislature should mandate that all state agencies make all contracts available on-line. This could be accomplished by simply requiring that all new contracts be posted on each agency’s web site within 30 days of execution. Agencies could be given more time to post existing active contracts.
With more than 19 million citizens, the Legislature could exponentially expand the oversight of government spending by simply allowing average citizens to gain easy access to the records. Just give us the records and we’ll do the rest.