On September 1, the Louisiana Treasurer’s office launched its much anticipated website, “Inside the Vault with the Louisiana State Treasurer.” The vault was created in response to a mandate from the state legislature that the treasurer complete a public-facing debt database. Upon review of the initial build of the website, the results are quite impressive.
Citizens can view one of five categories on the website: capital construction, debt, investments, Louisiana Asset Management Pool (Lamp) and unclaimed property. These categories provide a window into the state’s finances and fiscal health.
For example, the debt section provides not only the information on the state’s total current bonds but also information on other debt issue, such as pensions and the state’s bond rating. Perhaps more importantly, the information is presented in an easily understandable graphics format and doesn’t get bogged down in overly large, complex tables. For those who want more granular data, that information exists too.
Beyond displaying the data in an easy-to-understand fashion, the vault also provides crucial contextual information for its data. It can be difficult for everyday citizens to contextualize information without knowing how Louisiana compares to its neighbors. For example, Louisiana has a net state supported debt, essentially how much each portion of the debt each citizen is responsible for, of $1,627. But is that a lot or a little?
The vault answers that question by not only giving Louisiana’s ranking at the 16th highest in the nation but shows that the national average is $1,477 per citizen and the southern state average sits at $1,148.
Of course, this is hardly the only data set this type of analysis exists to address. Similar charts exist for all five categories along with the tools to create your own charts and analysis.
The Louisiana Checkbook, which presents similar information with emphasis on the spending side, along with the vault injects a dose of much needed transparency into Louisiana’s often opaque spending practices. The initial success of these two smart government tracking systems does beg the question, “Why doesn’t the entire government present its data in this format?”
There are a few potential reasons for this lack of transparency. Often, government can lack the technical expertise it takes to build a database and present the data in a compelling way. While government employees may be adept at working with large data sets and keeping accurate records, they may lack the other technical skills needed to translate that into such a website.
Government may also have more nefarious reasons from keeping this information in overly complex and confusing formats. Most people don’t have time in their daily lives to go through complicated, dense government financial reports. This means politicians campaigning for re-election can often hide the truth from citizens about the fiscal health of their state.
The vault provides yet another example of what can be accomplished when the government dedicates itself to transparency and accountability to its citizens. Smart government solutions like the Louisiana Checkbook and vault will lead to a more informed citizenry and more accountable elected officials. Citizens should continue to push for more of these products at all levels of government to ensure they have a better government that actually works for them.