Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Transparency in City Spending

Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. Transparency in government spending checks corruption, bolsters public confidence, improves responsiveness, and promotes greater effectiveness and fiscal responsibility.

Cities across the country have been moving toward making their checkbooks transparent by creating transparency portals and posting recipient-specific spending data online. Currently, 17 of America’s 30 most populous cities provide online databases of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. Online checkbooks in most cities are searchable, making it easier for residents to follow the money and monitor government spending.

Following our earlier studies of government spending at the state level, this report evaluates the progress of America’s 30 largest cities toward “Transparency 2.0” – a standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. Twelve scoring criteria were used to measure the breadth of information each city provides on-line and the information’s searchability. Since the deployment of city resources is intimately linked to providing everyday quality-of-life services for constituents, these criteria also include how well cities enable residents to make and track service requests online. Based on these findings, we then assigned each city a number grade from zero to 100 and a corresponding letter grade from “A” to “F.” 

Over the next year, America’s other large cities should improve their transparency websites, providing their residents with greater access to information about city spending decisions. Some cities may want to take advantage of New York City’s open code to adapt functionality without paying outside programmers.

All cities have many opportunities to improve their online spending transparency. In the next year, city governments should launch and improve transparency websites that provide detailed information on government expenditures. With continued progress toward online transparency, citizens will be able to access information on every dollar of their city’s spending and how service requests are handled – so they can actively and constructively engage in public debates about how resources are allocated.

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