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Wyoming’s checkbook

State auditor’s transparency website “jumping off point” for detailed records requests

in News/Transparency
Transparency
1852

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.”

Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences

in Government spending/News/Tourism
Sponsoring rodeo teams requires big bucks, but reaches bigger audiences
1255

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

When it comes to rounding up tourists, one of the best ways to nab their attention is through engaging narratives, according to Wyoming Office of Tourism Executive Director Diane Shober.

“Anytime you’re looking for a pitch into a larger audience, you want to have a compelling story with it,” Shober said. “Team Wyoming is a program built around pro rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. It is a way to take the image of the American cowboy and put a face and story with it.”

Created by the Office of Tourism in 2005, Team Wyoming brings together some of Wyoming’s top rodeo competitors in a marketing campaign focusing on the state’s strong ties to Western culture.“It’s a way to highlight Wyoming in the national conversation,” Shober explained. “We’re really leveraging the world’s love affair with the American cowboy.”

Comprised of seven members, the team competes in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events around the state throughout the year before heading to the National Finals Rodeo to compete and host autograph signings, press events, a trade show and a special breakfast with Wyoming legislators, fans and livestock contractors. 

“(The breakfast) is a salute to Team Wyoming in Las Vegas where the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is held,” Shober explained. “We celebrate the team, the Wyoming contractors that provide livestock for rodeo events and any folks in Wyoming that are hired to work (at NFR).”

The price of publicity is not cheap, however, and in 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Office of Tourism wrote checks to the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas for more than $20,000 each, according to information released in Wyoming’s checkbook by Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines.

“Twenty thousand dollars would be a lot for a breakfast, but those line items also include hotel rooms and rodeo tickets,” Shober said. “Back then, it was cheaper to buy bulk packages and provide them to people who wanted to attend the breakfast and rodeo, so there is a revenue component that is not reflected by those expenditures.”

From 2013 to 2015, the Office of Tourism provided interested parties with package deals purchased from the casino, she said. Sold at cost, the money was used to refund the Office of Tourism’s overall costs, which were paid for through its general fund.

During the 2013 NFR, the Office of Tourism reported it received about $8,700 in revenue to offset costs of about $23,500. In 2014, the office received approximately $13,200 in revenue during the NFR to offset its cost of about $22,600. And in 2015, the office received about $21,400 in revenue during the NFR, offsetting its cost of about $28,900.

“We have several sponsors for the event,” Shober said. “Over the years, they’ve covered a large portion of the costs. I have a sponsor that is going to cover the entire 2019 NFR event. So even though we pick up the bill, it doesn’t always mean that’s the cost to the Office of Tourism.”

On average, the office sent four to six employees between 2013 and 2015 for about four days of the NFR to promote Wyoming at various events and organize “meet and greets” with Team Wyoming, Shober said. While the employees’ accommodations were expensed to the state, she said additional hotel rooms were purchased from the Office of Tourism by Team Wyoming sponsors and other rodeo affiliates.

“We still do the breakfast annually,” Shober explained. “But we don’t do it at the Gold Coast Casino anymore. And we don’t do packages these days, because now the hotels are getting even stingier with their hotel rooms, and we’re not in the business of doing travel packages that way.”

For the last three years, she said the Team Wyoming breakfast was hosted at The D Hotel in Las Vegas, but the office is looking for a new venue in 2019.

As a whole, Team Wyoming has been a successful investment for the Office of Tourism, Shober said.

“When we started this, social media wasn’t really a thing yet,” she said. “But now, it’s part of the team members’ contracts, and we’ve seen that grow our brand.”

The office reported Team Wyoming’s social media accounts combined have about 100,000 followers. The Team Wyoming Facebook page has about 19,000 followers and posts videos promoting the team, some of which have been viewed more than 100,000 times.

But the big numbers come from the national coverage of the NFR. The Office of Tourism reported the NFR was attended by more than 177,000 people in 2017 and CBS Sports Network estimated each broadcast reached about 633,000 viewers.

“It’s not the rodeo crowd we’re marketing to necessarily — we’re marketing to potential visitors who want to come to the West,” Shober said. “This is about promoting Western culture and really elevating the Wyoming assets. It’s about that whole Western experience.”

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