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Transparency Stars Shine in Texas

September 7, 2021

By Glenn Hegar, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Governments at all levels operate best when they are accountable, open and transparent to the people they serve. Informed decisions are empowered by and depend on access to reliable, downloadable and timely data from trusted sources. And the amount of data governments collect is absolutely mind-boggling.

Now more than ever, we in government must, in the interest of transparency, make government data accessible. Individuals and communities alike can use government data when deciding how to vote on an upcoming school bond issue, where to start a business or where to purchase a home. Open data is about more than publishing information –– it’s about proactively meeting public needs with tools that solve problems and answer questions.

Public expectations have changed dramatically since the Texas Comptroller’s office first encouraged local government agencies to post their budgets, audits and check registers online when it launched the Leadership Circle program in 2009. Our current Transparency Stars program, which I initiated, recognizes local governments that practice on-the-record government and  excel in opening their books to their citizens. The program celebrates local governments that  go above and beyond previous basic standards for open government, and aims to create a culture of transparency throughout Texas government by recognizing and rewarding exceptional transparency efforts.

The Texas Comptroller’s office is not unique among government agencies in Texas in terms of the amount of data we gather and curate. This concept of “open data” and providing access to Texas taxpayers is not even new within our agency — it began with the preceding Texas Comptroller, Susan Combs, in 2006. Her efforts to “put a window on state government” opened the books and showed our own agency’s expenses on a few simple webpages.

Fifteen years later, those webpages have evolved under my administration into a new interactive tool called the Revenue and Expenditures Dashboard, where anyone can see where the money comes from and where the money goes for all Texas state agencies. Data visualization tools provide information about economic development corporations and key state economic indicators. My office compiles debt statistics on Texas cities, counties, school districts and community college districts into user-friendly, jargon-free summaries that are open and accessible to anyone. Visitors to our transparency webpage can see even more about the efforts my office is making.

But while states like Texas, may have the capacity to provide this kind of information, other government entities may not. In order to address that issue, my agency’s dedicated Transparency Team is available to answer questions and help Texas government entities post their information online, as well as respond to both agency-initiated and legislatively mandated transparency initiatives.

The Transparency Team helps local governments shine by guiding them on what information gives their citizens a picture of their financial status, debt obligations, contract and procurements processes and agreements, pension system and economic development efforts.  The team is available to provide guidance and best practices to government entities sharing their data so that their records are publicly and readily available, accessible, complete and reliable, timely and easily understood. Likewise, my office houses a team of experts dedicated to providing local government assistance in the form of budgeting best practices for local entities and economic development programs.

Texas government entities qualify to participate in our  Transparency Stars program by first publishing traditional financial information such as budgets. Additional  Transparency Stars are awarded for posting data on contracts, purchasing, economic development, pensions and debt. Our Transparency Stars award winners provide downloadable data as well as summaries, visualizations, and other tools — allowing the public to slice and dice the data themselves — creating their own new, unique data inquiries to spot and evaluate niche trends. Entities must also give Texas taxpayers direct access to their government by providing contact information for all elected and operational officials.

Transparency Stars are not awarded along a continuum or with an expectation that entities should be attaining five out of five stars — in fact, not all entities are even eligible for to receive five stars, no matter how much effort they put in. For example,  public school districts that are elgible to participate in the program cannot receive a public pension star because they do not administer their own pension programs.

Leveling the playing field in this way means we can applaud the efforts of large and small entities, as shown by awardees like Arlington (population nearly 400,000) and Brady (population just over 5,000). More than 379 Transparency Stars have been awarded to 205 participating financial entities since the Transparency Stars program launched in 2014.

Open, accessible government data is not magical — it’s the result of years of considerable hard work and commitment to the good of the public we serve. It requires the flexibility to embrace changes in technology and respond to the public’s right to know relevant information, while remaining vigilant in the careful protection of the most sensitive personal data. Our agency is firmly committed to maintain our government transparency efforts — and to provide Texans with the information they deserve to help ensure our state’s success.