The Illinois Comptroller’s Office recently opened “The Warehouse,” a massive collection of financial documents for more than 5,200 local governments throughout Illinois.
But the Warehouse is not a dank, dusty and cavernous vault filled with stacks of documents.
It’s a sleek virtual online repository of various financial reports submitted by more than 20 types of taxing bodies in Illinois, including counties, library and park districts, municipalities, and townships.
Less detailed financial information for community colleges, drainage and school districts, and housing authorities can also be found at The Warehouse.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka / www.ioc.state.il.us
It’s the latest example of a long and growing list of government agencies in Illinois sharing immense amounts of public information online– more than ever before.
Billed by some as “the open government data movement,” taxpayer-backed agencies at all levels have increasingly shared collected datasets online for the public to search, view and download.
The movement is also spawning a slow yet steady move toward greater government openness and accountability through the use of mobile apps, academic studies, business development ambitions, and other unique methods designed to take advantage of the information.
“The public has the right to know,” says Justin Massa, formerly of the Metro Chicago Information Center and a pioneer of that city’s open government data movement.
Still, critics argue there’s still a long way to go before government achieves full disclosure, and politicians are dragging their feet.
Some transparency and open-data advocates contend online government data is often incomplete, full datasets aren’t available for download, formats often vary, and government agencies continue to resist disclosure requests to fill in the blanks.
Yet there have been some important advances:
In April 2012, the state comptroller’s office unveiled “The Ledger“—an online collection of budgets, expenses, receipts, salaries and other financial information for dozens of state agencies.
It’s generated more than 2.5 million page views, according to Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka.
She’s hoping that The Warehouse garners widespread attention from the public, as well.
“The object of the exercise is to get as much information out there in a user-friendly way to have the public involved in their government,” Topinka said. “It can only benefit people to see how public funds are spent. Why not? It’s their money.”
Each year, as required by state law, the comptroller collects thousands of annual financial reports, annual audits and tax increment financial reports from various local governments.
The comptroller’s office has aggressively sought those reports, increasing compliance from 89 to 98 percent since Topinka took office in 2011, said spokesman Brad Hahn.
In 2012 and earlier this year, Topinka pushed for successful legislation that requires local governments to file those reports electronically.
Annual financial reports provide summaries of a taxing body’s revenues, expenditures, fund balances and debt. Annual audits detail an overview of a taxing body’s overall financial health along with its strengths and weaknesses. And municipalities with tax increment financing districts submit reports with information about the balances, expenditures and redevelopment projects for those districts.
In all, it’s a mountain of detailed information. So much so that Topinka believes visitors can learn enough to raise hard-hitting questions about how their local taxing bodies are borrowing, spending and saving.
Site visitors can even find the names and contact information of the certified public accountants that prepare the audits.
“We need the public to go to their alderman, their councilman … to give their two cents,” Topinka said.
After reading the Chicago Tribune’s recent “Broken Bonds” series about the City of Chicago’s questionable use of general obligation bonds–particularly to cover short-term expenses rather than long-term investments–Topinka said she’d like to provide more information about how local governments issue bonds.
“I want to go after debt [and] see if we can be helpful in trying to limit some of this,” Topinka said.
She’s not alone.
Cook County residents can also find financial information for local taxing bodies on the website of Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, which features more than 1,300 such records.
In addition, the treasurer’s website offers information about the property tax payment status for Cook County properties.
The City of Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois have all launched “data portals” where they share hundreds of datasets on practically everything from contracts awarded to crime events to public employee salaries to the results of food inspections.
Local governments routinely post copies of agendas, minutes and even video from their government meetings.
The Chicago City Clerk’s website even offers a searchable look at ordinances and other Chicago City Council actions. And other agencies share boatloads of information about campaign finance, elections, lobbyists, property assessments, property transactions, school performance and other areas.
Cook County Clerk David Orr, whose office also shares reams of public data, simply calls it an aspect of good government.
“The enemy of good government, in many cases, is secrecy–actions taken behind the public’s back,” said Orr. “Frankly, almost every day of the week something like that is happening in Cook County and the public is angry about it.”
Cook County Clerk David Orr / Facebook
The Cook County Clerk’s website features election results, lobbyist filings, statements of economic interest filed by government officials, and even a genealogy index with basic information from decades-old birth, marriage and death records.
For more than a dozen years, the Illinois State Board of Elections has collected electronic campaign finance reports from thousands of local and state political committees and shared the information online. Visitors to the state board of elections website can search those committees’ contributions and expenditures and download the results for further scrutiny.
In addition, the agency’s website offers info about ballot access requirements and deadlines, statewide election results, and the officers of political committees.
The Illinois State Board of Education has also shared a ton of public information online over the past decade or so. Along with teacher and administrator salaries, the board of education’s website offers budgets and financial reports for school districts and “report cards” providing academic performance, demographics, enrollment and other key indicators for schools and school districts throughout the state.
But it’s more than just data, said agency spokesperson Mary Fergus. She called the information “family engagement” tools providing knowledge that parents can use to have more meaningful conversations with teachers, administrators and school boards.
“I think this data is critical,” said Fergus. “It’s information all of us need to be better informed about what’s important in our schools.”
When sharing public data online leads to a more informed citizenry, everyone wins, says Massa, founder of Food Genius, a tech company crunching menu data for the food industry.
“It shouldn’t be regarded as a failure if it doesn’t create new businesses or engender civic engagement,” he says. “Open government data is good in and of itself.”
Alden Loury is a BGA senior policy analyst.