By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
Many Wyoming residents want state government to be more transparent, but few can agree the best way to go about it.
“When we talk about transparency, if you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 definitions,” Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines said. “The one thing we’ve heard consistently is folks want to see the (state’s) checkbook online.”
Racines took office in January as a six-year legal battle between the state auditor’s office and transparency groups regarding access to the checkbook came to a close. After campaigning on the promise of transparency, Racines followed through by releasing six years of government-spending data almost immediately upon entering office. Fulfilling the request for years past, however, was just the start. Racines said she wanted the checkbook to be readily available for every Wyoming resident to easily peruse on a whim.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Racines explained. “We wanted it to be on the internet, but we don’t have money in the state coffers to develop a big, expensive transparency platform.”
So she put her IT team to task: build a website that can be easily navigated, simple and an effective doorway for future information requests.
“This is certainly an extra ask on their plate,” Racines said. “We have a five-member IT team, and they started building the website in January in addition to their full-time duties.”
Wyopen.gov went live July 17.
“They really came to the table with an awesome product,” Racines said. “And we did it at essentially no extra cost to the taxpayer.”
By following the link, visitors are greeted with a simple white screen, minimal text, a “search transactions” button and links to overall expenditures for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The website’s face is uncluttered with gratuitous design elements, unnecessary images or the lengthy mission statements so commonly found littered across “dot gov” sites these days. As for usability, the search function has several fields to narrow down the user’s results, but only two fields need to be filled in for the engine to work.
Searchable fields include:
- Start and end dates: Format sensitive;
- Agency: Multiple choice;
- Expenditure category: Multiple choice;
- Description: Multiple choice;
- Vendor name: Partial names are searchable, and;
- Location: City, state or zip code.
“We talked to different user groups and tried to anticipate how citizens would think when they want to see data,” Racines said. “When we query data on the back end, it’s based on parameters they don’t necessarily know, like the (category) codes.”
After entering a search request, the user is presented with a spreadsheet containing basic data related to their search, which includes:
- Date of payment;
- Agency: The government agency making the payment;
- Vendor name: The recipient of the payment;
- Expenditure category: What account the check was billed to;
- Description: Basic reason for the payment;
- State: The state the check was sent to, and;
- Payment amount: The check total.
The information presented is only the bare bones of a checkbook, and in some cases, it may seem confusing. For instance, one expenditure category may be “In-State Bd/Comm Travel Reimbursements,” (In-state Board/Committee Travel Reimbursements) and its description could be “In-State Bd/Cm M&IE,” which can read like techno-babble for the casual user.
“This website will not fulfill every public records request, and we’re totally aware of that,” Racines said. “Our hope is when future requests get to us, the website will help them be a lot more dialed in.”
One of a government’s primary investments in fulfilling an information request is searching for the data requested, she explained. Broad requests require more time to fill, so providing the requestor tools to narrow the request could help the auditor’s office reduce fulfillment times.
“This is a really good jumping off point for our heavy-duty users,” Racines said. “We could drown this website in information, but I feel like that would be a disservice to the public.”
Website visitors interested in obtaining more information for any line item are encouraged to contact the auditor’s office. A dropdown menu on the top right side of the website lists two phone numbers and two emails for such requests.
While the website does contain a large chunk of the checkbook, it is not a complete ledger of every dollar spent by state government.
“There are some line items we are not allowed to release by state statute,” Racines explained. “Private citizen information, direct assistance payments to beneficiaries, some law enforcement agency expenses and victim payments are a few examples.”
With three years in the backlog, she said the auditor’s office is working to keep the information as up to date as possible.
“Initially we had planned to upload info quarterly, but now we’re looking at doing it monthly,” Racines said. “It’s not live, but it will be very timely.”
Because the website is not mandated by statute, Racines said she can’t speculate whether her successors will continue to update it, but she wasn’t aware of any reason they wouldn’t.
“We haven’t received any push back at all,” she added.
In the future, the website could include aggregated data, but for now, Racines said her team is content keeping the ship afloat.
“The beauty of it being a homegrown system is the cost is very low,” she said. “But, it’s not a luxury Cadillac.”