Information is power, and for too long in state and local governments elected officials and bureaucrats have been circumspect about creating an easy way to view how public money is spent. That is changing in Pinellas County, where Clerk of Court Ken Burke has set a new standard for openness. Burke has used existing county money to build a website that allows the public to track every single dollar spent in Pinellas County government, from the invoice requesting money to the check number disbursing it. This is the way open government should work in the digital age.
Burke launched his "Spending in the Sunshine" site quietly about six weeks ago after some internal testing. (It can be found through a link on the clerk's home page at pinellasclerk.org.)
The site is not perfect. It doesn't work properly in all browser software. It can be slow, and its drop-down search menus take some practice to master before searches are efficient. Newcomers to government budgeting can easily get lost amid the variety of "funds" and "categories" and the alphabet soup of acronyms that make up a modern government budget.
But Burke has attempted to make it user-friendly. His staff has recorded several videos with tips about how to use the site, and he said they will continue to work to improve it. Burke said the site has been a goal for about five years, since the county converted to an Oracle platform that made such functions possible on the Internet. He used in-house technology staff to build the public interface, and he believes it is the only site of its kind in Florida.
Unlike state politicians in Tallahassee who have routinely scuttled attempts to put the same kind of state budget information online in a searchable format, Burke sees a value in the extra scrutiny. A licensed certified public accountant, he envisions competing county vendors routinely using the site to keep an eye on their competition and providing an extra set of eyes to double-check that government is operating correctly. All county officials will have better access to financial information, and so will the public.
In an information age, government undermines its credibility when it makes information hard to get — particularly when that information involves spending public money. Other local governments and the state should follow Burke's lead and make it easier for anyone with a good Internet connection and the click of a mouse to follow the money.