Opinion: Government Transparency

By Richard Eckstrom
S.C. Comptroller

It was three years ago this month that I unveiled the state’s first Transparency Web site, giving taxpayers a central site to view itemized expenditures for state agencies. The idea was simple: People work hard for their money, and they deserve easy, click-of-a-mouse access to details about how government uses their tax dollars.
(It’s worth noting that South Carolina was one of the first states in the nation to establish a transparency Web site, and ours has been emulated elsewhere in the country. I’ve been happy to personally work with leaders in Michigan and Arkansas working to establish transparency Web sites in their states.)
In the years since we created our Web site, the notion that government entities can – and should – post their spending records online has taken hold all across the state.
In 2009, two of my staff members and I began a campaign to encourage local governments – cities, towns, counties and school districts — to voluntarily post their itemized expenditures on their Web sites.
Although none of us were quite sure how this idea would be received by local governments, our efforts apparently were not in vain: More than two dozen of them have done so, including the municipalities of Aiken, Cayce, Chesnee, Charleston, Columbia, Elgin, Georgetown, Greenwood, Irmo, Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Travelers Rest and Turbeville; and the counties of Anderson, Aiken, Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester, Greenville, Horry and Richland.
Based on the success of this Local Government Transparency Initiative, the S.C. Legislature passed an “online check register” requirement for S.C. school districts. (The new law, which went into effect last July, also gave school districts more flexibility in how they spend state funds.) Not all school districts were crazy about this new transparency law. When I spoke at an annual meeting of the S.C. Association of School Finance Officials last year, there were a few moans and groans at the mention of the topic. Some worried it could be too costly an undertaking. At the time of this writing, however, all but three of the state’s 80-plus school districts post their individual expenditures on the Web. Nearly every school district I’ve spoken with admit that the project was much easier than they had anticipated.
As the transparency movement in South Carolina grows, even the state’s colleges and universities are joining in. Earlier this year, I teamed up with Senators Mike Rose and Hugh Leatherman to encourage colleges and universities to voluntarily disclose their spending details on their Web sites. Our efforts paid off, and to date nine of them — Clemson, Lander and Francis Marion universities; The Citadel; Spartanburg Community College; and Trident, Horry-Georgetown, Piedmont and Tri-County technical colleges — have started doing so.
Indeed, public spending in South Carolina is becoming much more transparent… and, in the process, government is becoming more open, efficient and accountable.
Spending transparency not only shows respect for the taxpayers, but also improves the quality of government. Citizens should expect nothing less from public officials. Any government entity that isn’t posting its expenditures online should catch up.
It’s no longer the case that government entities that put their spending details online are ahead of the curve. Instead, those that don’t are behind the curve.