McDonnell on open government.

Gov. McDonnell, on open government:

“I’ve long been an advocate of putting our full budget, all our legislation, a number of things about state government online in an easy to download, easy to access fashion,” the governor said.

Really? I mean, if that’s true, that’s great, but it’s news to me. If there has been any advance in the provision of information online from the executive branch during McDonnell’s tenure, I have not noticed it. I don’t recall him introducing any bill on the topic during his years in the legislature, and a quick scan through his legislation doesn’t anything. Maybe by “advocate” he just means “supporter in spirit.”

Virginia puts a lot of this sort of information online, but it’s a mess. It’s found on dozens of websites, in a half dozen different formats, all different, none compatible, often near invisible to search engines, without an API in sight. The UI is always a train wreck. It’s bad enough that the sites look lousy, but they almost never provide any method for third parties to pull the data out and display it in a more meaningful fashion. I’ve been spending my nights and weekends on this for the past six months and, I’ll tell you, this kind of thing is frustrating as hell.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

5 replies on “McDonnell on open government.”

  1. The Virginia Auditor puts out reasonable (but not detailed enough) comparative locality reports.

    Commonwealth Datapoint is somewhat useful.

    But if you really want a budget challenge in Va try to find out what happens to the gas taxes you generate in your area.

    Try to find out how much is actually generated in a place like Charlottesville or Arlbemarle and then try to find out what it is spent on.

  2. I think it’s possible that having some so-so open government services available online is serving as an obstacle to having good ones. If there was nothing, people could rightly say “hey, why can’t we see the budget?” But since there’s something, people say “the budget is online,” and people who say “but I can’t find how what happens to my taxes!” or “there’s no way to tell who is getting huge tax breaks!” sound like nitpickers.

  3. I tend to agree. School Budgets are a good example. The data is slice and diced in great profusion but trying to make sense of it is nearly impossible.

    The Feds REQUIRE that the positions funded with their dollars be identified but the State does not require the same and so in most school budget, trying to understand what the State is paying for and what the locality is paying for is nearly impossible.

    Some will assert that they’re both paying for the same thing but that’s not true – the State only funds SOQ-mandated positions.

    The locality has to provide a state match but then most localities fund over an above what the State provides – for positions the State does not require but the local schools want.

    The amount of the local discretionary school funding can vary substantially from one county to another – for different things and some of those things are mostly amenities – not mandatory core academic needs.

    I have no problem with those extras if parents or taxpayers want to pay extra for them but I do think we should know what they are and how much they cost and no school budget that I have seen – show that kind of info despite hundreds of pages of “budget”.

    It’s also very difficult to ascertain on a cost-effective basis – school spending verses academic performance.

    Utah spends about 1/2 what Virginia does per student but comes very close to matching us on academic achievement.

    Massachusetts and New Jersey spend about $4 more student than we do but 2/3 of their students score “proficient” on the NAEP achievement benchmarks whereas only about 1/3 of Virginia’s kids do.

    Cost effectiveness and budget transparency are important.

    I would assert that many are opposed to gas tax increases and opposed to more funding for public schools because they think the money is going into a black hole with little accountability.

    Ultimately – the lack of accountability undermines public support of transportation and education.

    so there are indeed consequences to murky budget reporting.

  4. Waldo, Have you ever tried to sit down with Bell or Toscano and ask them to help craft a bill to standardize some of the budget reporting? Is it just too big of a project that one bill can’t fix? I think that if folks understood better how their tax dollars are being spent, then more politicians can be held accountable, etc. OR am I just being naive?

  5. I have not, in part because I don’t think I’d get anywhere. Nearly every attempt to open up government has gone down in flames in the House, with the notable exception this year of the successful bipartisan effort from a couple of House freshman to have them put their own voting records online. (The same bill failed last year.) Perhaps more important, the sorts of changes that I’d like to see do not—to the best of my knowledge—require action on the part of the legislature. I think just about all of this can be accomplished by bureaucrats—a word that I use in its best spirit.

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