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State Views: OpenBook offers partial peek at state of Wisconsin's spending

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Michael Buelow
January 31, 2014

In January, the state of Wisconsin launched a website with a searchable database that lets the public see what state government spends on goods, services and other operating costs.

OpenBook Wisconsin debuted with more than 25 million records for expenses, including real estate transactions, building projects, maintenance, office supplies and rents.

Records for state agencies, the Legislature and courts date back to mid-2007. The site’s records for the UW System start in fiscal 2013.

The site, which the state plans to update every two weeks, allows searches for each fiscal year by state agency, type of expenditure or vendor. The records viewers see are similar to listings on monthly credit card statements. On the plus side, OpenBook Wisconsin lets members of the public instantly obtain some information on state spending that they once would have had to ask for and wait. It provides a variety of avenues for people to monitor how much state government spends.

But the site also has some glaring minuses. OpenBook provides an overwhelming amount of data, but the records are scant on meaningful details and descriptions to the point of being misleading. Some examples:

-- The site lists $22.4 million in information technology payments to private companies in fiscal 2013 by the Department of Health Services but doesn’t describe the purchased goods, services or projects. Health Services is one of the state’s largest agencies with oversight over hundreds of health care, insurance, public safety and other programs. All told, state agencies paid private companies nearly $94 million for IT goods and services that year. But the website’s users don’t get any details of what the state specifically got for its buck.

-- The site shows the Department of Natural Resources spent $47.1 million for land and related fees and costs in fiscal 2011. The records show the date, vendor, cost and whether the purchase was for conservation or capital construction, repair or maintenance projects. But users are not told the location or amount of land purchased, or details about the capital project. One entry shows the department paid the Society of Tympanuchus $1.2 million on July 13, 2010, for a capital improvement. End of story.

-- The site says the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation paid the Potawatomi Bingo Casino $5,833 on Oct. 15, 2012, for “Miscellaneous Services.” Hmmm. Perhaps the state paid for a wild night of bingo and slots for some of its employees?

Actually, no. The site lets users request more information about specific transactions. I did so for this transaction and a day later received a response from WEDC spokesman Mark Maley. He said the payment was for food, beverages and rent to hold a two-day education and training conference to assist businesses owned by women, minorities and disabled veterans.

The Department of Administration plans to add additional information over the course of months and even years, such as spending on state salaries, contracts and grants, and greater detail on spending records when technology develops to let it do so.

OpenBook is the state’s second attempt to make state spending more transparent to the public on a large scale. It replaces an online database called Contract Sunshine launched in 2007 that was chronically incomplete and difficult to use.

Let’s hope the second try does a better job at giving the public what it has a right to know.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Michael Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.



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