united states project

Will a new website deliver on Wisconsin’s promises about transparency?

OpenBook promises to let light in on state spending, but it's a limited tool for now
February 26, 2014

DETROIT, MI — As media watchdogs know all too well, it can be hard to get a handle on what’s going on in Wisconsin. The state earned a “D” grade, among the worst in the nation, from the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation for the way it presents legislative data. The leading political story in the state right now revolves around a pair of so-called John Doe investigations, secretive probes in which prosecutors can bar almost anyone connected to the inquiry from talking about it publicly. And when pressure from local news organizations helped force emails and documents collected in one of those probes into the public domain, they showed that while Gov. Scott Walker was a county executive eying the governor’s mansion, his aides used private email accounts to coordinate campaign activity while on government time.

In other words, despite the state’s long reform tradition, this is a political culture that can favor obfuscation over openness. But after a year-long delay, the state in January launched what Walker and his allies are touting as a major step forward: a new website called OpenBook Wisconsin.

Authorized by a 2011 legislative action, the site is intended to bring transparency to spending in all state agencies, including public universities. The focus on spending fits neatly with Walker’s image as a fiscal conservative out to rein in an overgrown public sector–and the governor is prominently featured on the homepage, with a note that describes OpenBook as “part of my ongoing commitment to making state government more transparent for the citizens of Wisconsin.”

Still in the beta phase, OpenBook has more than 25 million entries on spending by state agencies dating back to 2007, including travel expenses, maintenance fees, real estate transactions, and vendor payments. It’s searchable by agency, expenditure category, or vendor in each fiscal year. The state says that the information will be updated every two weeks.

It sounds like a promising tool for watchdog journalists, or anyone else who wants to keep tabs on state spending. But OpenBook comes on the heels of Contract Sunshine, another Wisconsin effort at public transparency that proved ineffective because of incomplete information and difficult navigation. So will OpenBook actually be an effective tool for reporters and editors? Or is it so much election-year political shine?

For an early review of the site, I asked members of the outstanding investigative team at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about their experiences with it so far. The consensus? OpenBook is a start in bringing more transparency to state government–but to be a really valuable tool for journalists, the site will have to expand and improve as it sheds that “beta” tag.

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Reporter Ellen Gabler said that OpenBook’s most effective service is in simply showing what exists–what vendors, agents, and categories are in the state budget. The site helpfully lets users download sections of data into an Excel document, but, Gabler said, “anyone doing a comprehensive analysis would likely need more information than you can download.”

She raised questions about how complete information about public employees’ compensation will be, once it is added to OpenBook. “A reporter would want to make sure the data was actual money paid out to a state employee, instead of just a base salary, because payments like bonuses [and] overtime… likely would not be listed in base salary data.” It’s fairly typical for city and state agencies to release “salary” information that include nothing but the base pay, Gabler added, “so you would have no idea if they collected $50K from some other department or a bonus or whatever.”

And Kevin Crowe, another Journal-Sentinel investigative reporter, said that while OpenBook is a good starting point, users will “want to do some basic checks in order to backstop the information presented.”

“For example,” he said, “if you were searching for a company or a person who did business with the state, the expenditures should show up in an OpenBook search. But you might find two companies or people with similar names. With the information presented on the site, there’s no way to tell if they’re the same company or person. Normally, you might be able to use a billing address, contact information, or a vendor number to resolve the identity problem, but none of that information is available.”

As a result, Crowe said, “there would have to be more information provided on the site before I would think to use it for any sort of analysis.”

The reporters’ assessment echoes the take from Emily Shaw, national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, where the jury is still out. “It’s challenging to assess the site fully since it does not yet fully fulfill its intended mission, which seems to be capturing all government expenditures,” Shaw said.

She compared OpenBook with the Massachusetts Open Checkbook, another version of a state government’s transparency efforts. The Massachusetts version, Shaw said, reveals what is currently lacking in Wisconsin–finely-grained detail on individual expenditures, down to a comparison of the amounts spent on bottled water across a set of different vendors. “This would be a more useful degree of detail for journalists,” she said.

But OpenBook Wisconsin does get a nod from Shaw for its bulk download capabilities, which offers data that is updated more frequently than what’s available for bulk download through the Massachusetts site which Massachusetts Open Checkbook does not yet have.

The site also drew some measured support from Bill Lueders, a columnist for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism–an outlet that’s hardly cozy with the state legislature–who wrote that critics of OpenBook’s bugs and delays “may want to cut the governor some slack” because the site, while not perfect, is “a neat tool.”

With the site still in beta, there’s room for journalists and other observers to push for modifications that will make it more comprehensive tool for analysis. Some proposed changes, though, may bump up against privacy concerns. As a notice from the state’s Office of Human Resources details, OpenBook “will display fringe benefit costs in total, not by individual employee, in order to protect employee confidentiality of health care plan participation and other benefit elections. UW-Madison will also exclude payments to people who receive stipends for participating in scientific research studies.”

But more information is forthcoming, the state promises, including grant awards, better vendor information, and more detailed data from the University of Wisconsin. This sounds like useful stuff, but it will be up to–who else?–media watchdogs to make sure the state comes through.

Correction: This post originally contained inaccurate information about the bulk download function of Massachusetts Open Checkbook. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.