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Government Transparency: Trends in Texas

Texas Business Review

Thursday, April 1, 2010

By Lara Kirkham and Gary Chapman

In 2006, Texas initiated what would become a nationwide movement toward increased state government financial transparency by posting detailed records of the Governor’s office expenses online. Since then, Texas has remained a leader in the development of web-based tools for information exchange between government and citizens. The challenge for Texas lies in remaining at the forefront of this transparency movement. To stay relevant, Texas must continue to pursue strategies that promote innovation and information accessibility, recognizing that government financial data is fundamentally a publicresource.  

The Evolution of Transparency
 

The definition of transparency seems to change in step with the technological capabilities of the time. What was considered useable, accessible, and transparent one day is outdated and insufficiently transparent the next. In Texas, the Public Information Act guarantees the public the right to request access to government information. Under this Act, citizens may submit open record requests in writing to government agencies for existing documents or other public information. The governmental body is required to reply “promptly” to the request and produce copies of the information. This inefficient process represents the current paradigm of transparency for most government agencies across Texas. However, a movement toward a post-Public Information Act era is beginning to take shape as Texas turns to the Internet to promote increased government transparency.

The newest paradigm of government transparency is online data accessibility. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed Bill 3430, partly in response to the 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act championed by then Senator Barack Obama. The Texas bill made the State Comptroller’s office responsible for putting certain government data, such as contracts and grants, online and in a format that is “searchable and intuitive to users.”  The mandate is somewhat ambiguous because, for example, the requirements can be met by simply posting Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of datasets or reports on a Web site. The problem with PDF documents, however, is that they cannot be easily manipulated or transformed by the user. The PDF format was designed for printing, not for data accessibility. PDF documents are static and cumbersome, and users cannot easily extract core figures to generate original graphs or to conduct extended analysis. Although government officials may believe they are promoting transparency, they may actually be expending time and resources for immaterial results.

 

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