October 23, 2014

State launches financial transparency website

Wisconsin residents can now go online and get a closer look at how the state is spending taxpayer dollars. The “OpenBook Wisconsin” website went live Thursday, and offers the public a look at more than 25 million financial transactions the state has made since 2007.

Department of Administration Deputy Secretary Chris Schoenherr says it’s a “historic moment” for government transparency in Wisconsin, although the site does still have a long way to go and they expect several improvements to be made in the coming months and years.

It provides a general view of how much the state spent and who received the money in a wide variety of categories, ranging from travel expenses to security costs. It primarily tracks expenditures made using the state’s accounting system, and includes data for state agencies and the Legislature, along with more limited information for the University of Wisconsin System and the court system.

While the database does provide an overall number for how much money was spent for a specific item or service, it does not provide a breakdown of what that money bought for the state. For example, under a heading for something like construction supplies, it might show the state spent $50 with a vendor. However, Schoenherr says it will not show that the state bought “a hammer, a bag of nails, and a couple of light bulbs. We don’t have that level of detail on the site. Frankly, that level of detail is not capture electronically in the state at this time, those are paper records.” He says that is something they hope to change as technology improves.

The site has been more than two years in the making, after the Legislature ordered its creation in the 2011 state budget. Schoenherr says it took so long to get up and running because of privacy concerns with the financial data being listed and because they wanted to spend time testing the database to make sure it was working properly.

The OpenBook site is currently in its beta form and members of the public are being urged to begin looking at how their tax dollars are being spent. The site does feature and “ask a question” button, which will allow people to inquire about specific transactions they find listed.