(Part 1 of a 2-part series on transparency issues in state government)
Despite its promises of greatly increasing government transparency, the Patrick administration’s new Open Checkbook website seems to me to fall a little short of the hype.
Open Checkbook was launched in December with lots of claims made about how it was going to give the average Internet user a powerful new lens into the inner workings of public finances. The state budget office in conjunction with the Comptroller and Treasurer jointly instituted the website in response to legislation that sought to upgrade the state’s relatively low ranking in a state-by-state transparency survey by MassPIRG.
Open Checkbook is divided into two major sections, State Vendor Spending and Payroll & Pension Spending. I found the vendor spending section to be disappointing in one major respect. It displays a lot of about where the money to vendors comes from, which is very good, but no information on where the money goes, i.e., how the vendors spend it. (I haven’t yet tried out the Payroll & Pension Spending section.)
I used the vendor portion of Open Checkbook to look up one specific company, the May Institute, Inc., for Fiscal Year 2010. This is the same nonprofit provider for which COFAR has unsuccessfully sought cost information lately from the Department of Developmental Services.
I clicked on one particular category of funding for that vendor and got a long list of dates followed by payment amounts. By clicking on July 14, 2009, for instance, I was able to find out that DDS paid the May Institute $367,000 on that date for residential and day services. It doesn’t appear to be possible to find out much more detail about that payment.
What is good is that I was able to do a refined search, based on the residential and day services account, and find that a total of $26.9 million was paid to the May Institute under this account by DDS in FY 2010.
The bad news, as noted, is there is no way to track where the money goes after it gets to the vendor. For instance, there there appeared to be no way to view administrative expenses for the May Institute or to find data on the compensation of executives of the agency. It would seem that a checkbook should tell you about both incoming and outgoing funds.
Also, the site doesn’t display contracts, as some similar state sites do; and the data on Open Checkbook doesn’t go back before Fiscal Year 2010. An official with the state budget office said displaying actual contracts is “on our list” for improving the site, but that hasn’t been decided yet.
It’s also worth noting that much of the information available on Open Checkbook is available as well on the state’s longstanding Uniform Financial Report website for vendors. In fact on the UFR website, you can find total payments to vendors broken down by government agency as well as spreadsheets that do show where the money is going, including amounts paid to executives of the vendor agencies. (That salary information may be incomplete, in several cases, as we have reported. But at least some of it is available.)
The UFR site, for instance, shows that a total of $30.29 million was paid by DDS to the May Institute in FY 2010 as part of a total of $104.4 million in revenue to the vendor. Admittedly, the information on the UFR site isn’t nearly as up to date as the Open Checkbook site. But you can find a lot of information on the UFR site that isn’t available on Open Checkbook, such as the fact that the May Institute had $101.6 million in expenses in FY 2010, including $396,716 in compensation to its CEO and $56 million on direct care salaries. Also the UFR information goes back to FY 2002.
What the UFR site doesn’t appear to show, which Open Checkbook does, is a breakdown of funding going to vendors per budgetary account, such as the Residential and Day Services account.
One other problem I had with Open Checkbook has to do with its presentation of a large amount of abbreviated or otherwise highly techical information. For instance, the the funding listed for the May Institute was broken down into five categories on the site, including Grants to Nonpublic Entities, Legal Support Services, Medicaid, Purchased Human and Social Services for Clients/Non Medical, and a fifth and largest category dollarwise, titled “PurchH&Ss For Clit.Med/HC Rel (MM3).” Spending under this category was listed as $23,047.235.83. What exactly does “Clit.Med/HC Rel (MM3)” stand for?
I was able to hover my cursor over the acronym, and up came the following definition, which didn’t clear up the confusion very well. The definition was:
Payments pursuant to contracts with organizations to purchase social services or programs with medical or healthcare related components on behalf of specifically identified clients or a specific target group. Includes services rendered by an individual with payment to a corporate entity. Federal funds are reported as sub-recipient payments.
The “MM3” part of the acroym is an object code classification for the payments. The Open Checkbook site FAQ page states that individual object codes are defined in the “Expenditure Classification Handbook” maintained by the Comptroller’s Office. But unfortunately, the link on Open Checkbook FAQ page to the Comptroller’s Handbook didn’t work.
As administration officials have said, Open Checkbook is a work in progress.