Dispatch editorial: DataOhio bill supports government transparency

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

We hope this is the year that Ohio lawmakers finally will OK a system that makes it possible for the public to look at government spending data and actually make sense of it.

This is the third General Assembly in which Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington has co-sponsored bills to create a database that would not only list expenditures by participating governments, but would put them in a simple, standardized format, allowing easy comparisons.

That’s a key point, because the public currently has access to plenty of data through Ohio’s open-records laws. State Treasurer Josh Mandel’s Open Checkbook project has put raw spending information from state agencies, plus townships, cities and villages, online, making such information easier to find.

But snapshots of spending have only limited value if they can’t be analyzed — for example, compared year to year or city to city.

The bill also would create a body called the DataOhio Board, to meet regularly and set standards for how data is to be presented. It would not require local governments to participate, but would encourage them, by providing $10,000 grants to cover the cost of putting the data online initially.

The current vehicle is House Bill 3, and it had a hearing Sept. 20 before the House Finance Committee. Both previous DataOhio initiatives passed the House but died in the Senate.

The bill has the backing of the Ohio News Media Association, the state auditor and state librarian, plus some economists. The Ohio Municipal League also has signed on, which is notable because in previous efforts, some cities and villages have been leery of making their spending quite that easy to analyze.

What if it turns out they’re spending way more for road salt or have far more employees per capita than a neighboring city, and everyone can see it?

Exactly. DataOhio is meant to give taxpayers, even those who aren’t CPAs, the ability to judge how their government is operating, in the context of the whole state. It’s the surest way to prod governments to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible.