A new story in the Boston Globe today found at least 19 "quasi-public" agencies in Massachusetts failed to publish millions of dollars in payroll and spending data on the state's transparency website as required by a MASSPIRG backed 2010 law that mandated the public disclosures.
Government spending transparency websites give citizens and government officials the ability to monitor many aspects of state spending in order to save taxpayer money, prevent corruption, reduce potential abuse of public dollars, and encourage the achievement of a wide variety of public policy goals.
In Massachusetts, quasi-public agencies perform vital government functions, delivering essential services such as operating public buses and rail systems, delivering drinking water and managing public pensions. They employ thousands of people and sometimes control billion-dollar budgets. Because they are not directly accountable to the legislature and exempt from many kinds of public oversight, these agencies should make their decisions and budgets especially open to public scrutiny. MASSPIRG Education Fund released a study in 2010, Out of the Shadows, which detailed the lack of transparency in 42 of the state's quasi-public agencies, which represented a total additional state spending equal to a third of the entire state budget.
Such lack of transparency has recently become an issue since the Boston Globe uncovered that parts of the State Police payroll were kept out of public view for years, including payments made through MassPort, which is a quasi public agency. Government officials and employees are now under investigation for theft and fraud.
The good news is, we are heading in the right direction when it comes to on-line, accessible, government spending information. When we wrote our report in 2010, we had to request most of the spending data through Freedom of Information Requests, agency by agency. And, often after a number of calls, the information came in the form of a scanned PDF. Today, most government agencies do make their spending information available on the state website, and do so in a downloadable, easy-to-use format. And, when the Globe inquired about missing information for some agencies – several of them quickly responded to make their data available and on line.
This year, Massachusetts earned a B- in our 50 state survey of on-line, comprehensive, easy to use state spending websites. We hope with continued oversight, public scrutiny and staff dedicated to comprehensive transparency, that Massachusetts will jump to the head of the class.