Goal Achieved: Michigan’s Path to an A+ Transparency Rating

Customer: State of Michigan | Site: Open Michigan Transparency & Spending

Across the country, states are constantly competing with each other for federal funding, for businesses to create new jobs in their state, for planners to book events in their cities, and for residents to want to live and grow within their boundaries. In order to win, states must prove their competitive advantage.

In the past Michigan lagged in its ability to show taxpayers how government money was being spent. The lack of information was a liability and potentially harmed their relationship with residents and potential business partners. The state’s budget director decided to take action.

michigan-us-pirg

Since 2010, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) has issued an annual report that grades each state on its spending transparency. The report identifies leaders and laggards, and suggests actions for states to take to ensure that citizens can examine their state’s expenditures with ease. In this year’s report, Michigan earned an A+ grade, with 100 points.

The report, “Following the Money 2016: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” written by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, also acknowledged Michigan as the most improved state in terms of transparency, jumping from a B+ (with 87 points) to its perfect score.

“This improved grade shows that our teams are doing the right things to get more information to the people of Michigan in ways they can find truly useful,” said Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Set a Goal

Michigan was able to achieve tremendous progress by identifying what they wanted and clearly communicating it to potential partners. With laser-sharp focus, the state’s request for proposal stated, “the purpose of this project is for Michigan to obtain and maintain an A+ grade.” The state wanted to show their commitment to transparency, tracking expenditures, sharing information with citizens, and making it easy to see the connections between spending and goals. A strong grade from U.S. PIRG would validate their work.

As a partner, Socrata provided Michigan with the necessary technology to relaunch its site and showcase the state’s spending in a clear, user-friendly manner. Socrata offered deep insights gained from years of government experience and delivered a clear roadmap for implementation that prepared the state for success.

Move beyond a “Good First Effort”

Michigan was not starting from scratch with transparency. The state’s E-Michigan team spent 250 hours to internally develop and maintain a website that provided high-level information to citizens on where taxpayer dollars were spent and the state’s performance in key metrics. Despite the efforts of the state’s developers, for years after the in-house site’s launch, Michigan’s grade from U.S. PIRG bounced around.

Mike Moody, Director of the Office of Financial Management, recalls, “When we first implemented the site we got a C from U.S. PIRG. After that, we bounced between a B and an A-.” Getting a perfect score would require outside, expert aid. “We had technology and resource limitations and didn’t think it would be possible to get to an A+ internally,” said Moody.

The site was a “good first effort, that definitely needed more love and attention,” says Kurt Weiss, Communications Director for the State Budget Office. Not only were updates time- and labor-intensive, requiring monthly outreach to many agencies, but there wasn’t a lot of payoff in return. Attention and traffic to the site was low.

Perhaps Michigan became even more aware of the limits of its in-house site after a conference attended by John Roberts, Michigan’s Budget Director. At the conference, Weiss recalls that everyone was talking about a few states who were leading the pack with intuitive, comprehensive financial data websites. Roberts returned to his home state intent on improvements.

Provide Technology, and Much More, to Make the Grade

Michigan’s goal — to get a perfect score from U.S. PIRG — was clear, but the timeframe was tight, since U.S. PIRG’s grading period began soon. Together, Socrata and Michigan developed a plan, executed it, and launched in under eight weeks. The two teams quickly implemented a meeting schedule, and established near-constant communications on how to design the website, make data available, and determine which data to include.

But it wasn’t only logistics and technical know-how that Socrata shared. “Socrata was great throughout the whole process,” says Weiss. “They brought an expertise to the table about what had worked for other states, as well as important insights about U.S. PIRG’s priorities as well as the criteria for grading.”

Moody agrees. While Socrata’s major contribution was technology, “Their familiarity with the U.S. PIRG grading criteria, and advice on how to use their technology to achieve that A+ grade,” was also tremendously helpful.

The advantages of the new site internally are clear. No longer are monthly updates a laborious, time-consuming process, requiring staffers to gather up data department-by-department. “For the financial management office, the time it takes to upload the data has been drastically reduced,” says Weiss, adding that “all the folks we work with like the process much better.” Moody estimates that having the portal in place frees up more than 30 hours a month for staffers.

Just as importantly, the site is a huge improvement for citizens. Previously, Michigan residents could see high-level details — how much was spent by each department, for instance — but couldn’t drill down further to get additional details. Today, budget information lives in one place; site visitors no longer need to know bureaucratic function charts to determine which department may have the answers they need. As with all the leading states identified by U.S. PIRG, the site offers citizens an easy-to-use website, and enables citizens, advocates, media, and researchers to download checkbook datasets.

U.S. PIRG commented specifically in the report on Michigan’s improvement, saying, “A new contract with a software-as-a-service provider allowed the state to provide additional functionality at a minimal cost.” The report also highlights the many new features and functionalities available on the site. Of particular note: the ability to bulk download data.

What’s Next for Michigan?

Having earned the coveted A+ rating, Michigan is determined to maintain its high standing. The state is already thinking about the U.S. PIRG’s 2017 report. No longer under a time crunch, Michigan has the freedom to consider optional features and add-ons from Socrata to improve and refine the site further.