Idaho unveils transparency site

From The Spokesman-Review

BOISE – Idaho’s governor and state controller unveiled a new state government transparency website Thursday, with extensive data about the state’s finances and workforce that’s automatically updated every night.

“We’ve always provided our public information whenever it’s requested, but this allows the citizens to quickly get to it without having to come through the office,” said state Controller Brandon Woolf, who at 40 is the youngest statewide official in Idaho. “They get right to the data.”

Perhaps most remarkably, the transparency site was set up within the controller’s existing budget – with no additional appropriation of state funds.

“Compared to other states, they have spent millions to do their state transparency websites,” Woolf said. “To this point, we have done it within our existing budget.”

The new site features myriad charts and graphs, tons of detail to dig into, and is searchable by cross-tabs including agency, county and more. “There’s thousands and thousands of reports that are available and that are out there now,” Woolf said.

Gov. Butch Otter compared it to public records requests “on steroids,” and said it’ll put state financial data “just a click away.” He called the new site “a very important big step in transparency in state government.”

“We’ve been able to enable the existing technology that we have in our office,” Woolf explained, including a data warehouse that has financial, personnel and payroll data the state controller receives from state agencies. “So when state agencies key in financial information, personnel or payroll information, it’s updated nightly as it goes through the process into our systems and into the data warehouse, and eventually to the website.”

Woolf, who has a political science degree and an MBA, has worked at the controller’s office since starting as an intern in 1997. He was named chief of staff in 2011, and was appointed state controller in October.

He said work on the transparency site started last spring. “At that point it was just some conceptual ideas,” Woolf said, crediting “some brilliant individuals” on his staff who came up with new ways to use their existing technology. “I really appreciate their hard work and their smart ideas,” he said; he introduced and recognized his staffers at a press conference Thursday with the governor in the state Capitol.

Woolf said the transparency site is a work in progress, and doesn’t yet have a capability he’d like to see: A searchable, online version of the state’s checkbook, enabling citizens to look up how much an agency spent on a particular vendor. Getting to that point will require an additional investment, he said; he may request funds for that next year, “if there’s an opportunity down the road to make it a more useful tool for the citizens.”

Woolf was appointed state controller Oct. 15 after former Controller Donna Jones resigned to focus on recovering from serious injuries suffered in a car accident. Woolf will serve out Jones’ term and has already said he plans to then seek election in his own right.

A humble Woolf said at the press conference, “Gov. Otter has continued to ensure that there are no dark corners in government spending,” and added, “I would like to thank my staff whose hard work and dedication and bright ideas made this possible.”

Otter said he expects some savings for the state due to fewer formal public records requests, because they’re seeking data that’s now readily available. “If we can lessen that … time and expense … plus provide the transparency that we should provide for the people of Idaho, I think there’s going to be some economies and some savings in that,” the governor said.

From The Spokesman-Review

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