The way to deter crime, the experts say, is to have more eyes on the street — neighbors watching out for the neighborhood. The same principle should work for government: If you want to deter wasteful spending, open up the books so that there are more eyes on the money.
Louisiana, so long a byword for official corruption, has actually done something right in the last decade. According to an independent analysis from the nonpartisan Public Interest Research Group, Louisiana government is in the top 10 of the states for transparency in government operations.
Being on top of a good list is all too rare for us.
One of the keys to that rating was the development in former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration of a transparent tracking system for state spending, giving anyone online access to state contracts and budget information. Called LaTRAC and operated by the Division of Administration, it was established in 2008.
LaTrac had some deficiencies, though, partly because budget problems have always hampered Jindal’s good intentions of greater use of technology in state government. Now, the state of Ohio has leapfrogged Louisiana by developing the Ohio Checkbook, a more comprehensive and user-friendly website that can give the public access to spending down to the level of pencils and office equipment.
The site was demonstrated at the annual meeting of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which is helping lead a coalition of business and public interest groups seeking creation of a similar model in our state. We second that motion.
The Ohio Checkbook also has the now-familiar aspects of a modern website, including a button allowing users to “share” the pages on social media. “That made us a lot of friends in state government,” Frank Kohstall, a spokesman for Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, told LABI members wryly.
LABI’s president, Stephen Waguespack, served in Jindal’s administration and noted that LaTRAC was an innovation, but in the decade since, technology has moved faster than government. The judiciary, the Legislature and most universities are not now on the site.
Also, Louisiana's state government simply has not done enough — meaning, spent enough — on day-to-day technology. Moving to a comprehensive website like Ohio Checkbook is going to be more difficult, although Kohstall also noted that Ohio has thousands of local governments, too, who are working to get on the site. But with state budgets chronically slashed, a consequence of the Jindal years, the first casualties have often been the kind of technology purchases that would make implementation of initiatives like Ohio Checkbook easier.
Louisiana ought to emulate the Ohio Checkbook model, but to save real money, we'll have to invest significant sums into getting operations of government — not just budgets, and purchase orders — into the 21st century.