June 20, 2018
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State seeks better than a D- for financial transparency, controller says

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — Terry Brann doesn’t like getting a D-.

The Maine state controller said he finds some positives in U.S. PIRG’s improved ranking Wednesday of the financial transparency of the state website, but he isn’t satisfied yet.

PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, gave maine.gov an improved but still poor grade in the group’s second annual review of state government websites for the site’s failure to provide basic financial data often seen on other state sites.

“It is a plus and a minus,” Brann said Thursday of the evaluation. “To be rated dead last in year one and go to 37th [nationwide] in year two is an improvement, but it is still not where I want to be.”

Maine.gov “is a great resource that brings a lot of transparency to the user already,” said Kelly Hokkanen, general manager of Maine Information Network, the state’s contracted provider of e-government services. “We have lots of good stuff.”

The website won more than 25 national awards over the last 10 years, including an A+ grade in 2011 from Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization dedicated to state and local government transparency, Hokkanen said. Maine.gov handles more than 460,000 visits monthly, offers more than 300,000 pages of content and more than 1,400 interactive online services.

“The studies look at different things,” Hokkanen said. “The PIRG report is focused on financial transparency, which is an area where Maine does have more steps to take, but Maine has been ranked very highly for overall transparency.”

PIRG’s inventory of the content and accessibility of the transparency of state websites, a report titled “ Following the Money 2012,” evaluated the “checkbook-level” disclosure of data on the Maine controller’s website, http://www.maine.gov/osc/index.shtml.

PIRG sought to see how easily the site allowed everyday users to follow the money — to track state revenues and expenditures as easily as they might balance their own checkbooks.

PIRG found that despite improvements, many serious deficiencies remain. As an example, expenditure information is not searchable by vendor, keyword or activity at maine.gov and lacks contract information for each expenditure.

State officials hope to roll out in June a new site within maine.gov that should contain many of the improvements PIRG recommends, Brann said.

The new site will likely have several improvements PIRG reviewers would appreciate, Hokkanen said. They include:

• State revenue and expenditure information updated monthly for users to search and drill into, including state transactions detailed by agency, category, and dates, among other criteria.

• Allowing users to download revenue and expenditure data from maine.gov, which presently is not available.

• Increased detailed information about expenditures that would show, for example, specific payment amounts to individual vendors.

Brann said PIRG’s F or dead-last ranking last year came in a review of the wrong site. The vendor site PIRG examined was never intended to be the public portal for state financial information, Brann said.

State workers have been trying to build more financial transparency into maine.gov for about two years. A great deal of preliminary work, such as a rebuilding of the state’s outdated financial database, had to come first to make transparency possible, Brann said.

Workers had to assess financial information for its compliance with the Freedom of Information Act law. That meant ensuring, for example, that disabled residents receiving welfare funding, who would be considered “clients,” would not have their identities revealed illegally, Brann said.

Brann doubted that PIRG would see everything it seeks in financial transparency in the new maine.gov financial data section, but he and Hokkanen said the PIRG evaluation is a good tool.

“The PIRG increase [in ranking] is definitely positive,” Hokkanen said. “The state, from the perspective of maine.gov and its online services, is constantly providing more transparency and access to information and services and making it more convenient for users.”

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