During his tenure as Florida Senate president, Mike Haridopolos contracted with Spider Data Services to develop an unprecedented budget tracking system at a cost of nearly $5 million. That system, Transparency 2.0, is now fully developed and ready for use, but recent news reports suggest that Florida lawmakers may well walk away, shelving the program.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, the Senate handed management of the program to the governor's office over the summer, but Gov. Rick Scott does not appear to be ready or willing to take ownership of Transparency 2.0 and has yet to sign an agreement with the Senate transferring the contractual obligations to the executive branch. The contract with Spider Data Services runs through the end of this year. If action is not taken before Dec. 31 to renew the contract, it will expire without the program ever being launched, leaving Floridians in the dark and $5 million poorer.
With the support and encouragement of Scott's staff and Senate President Don Gaetz, we met with Spider Data Services. We were provided user names and passwords, and allowed unfettered access to the Transparency 2.0 website. After a thorough assessment of the system's capabilities, we then compared Transparency 2.0 to those of the two transparency websites up and running — TransparencyFlorida.gov, created two years ago by the Florida Legislature, and MyFloridaCFO.com/Transparency and its sister website, https://facts.fldfs.com, both created and maintained by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
Based on our comparison of the features and data sources of the three websites, it is our conclusion that Florida would save millions of dollars and receive an A grade for public access to government spending and financial information on national report cards that track budget transparency sites if Transparency 2.0 is allowed to launch.
According to Spider Data Service's website, Transparency 2.0 is intended as "a single source of information" that will serve both as "as a portal to raise awareness of how government is organized" and as a source for specific financial information on government programs, functions and personnel "that are critical to successful governance and operations."
On a more practical level, Floridians who want simple answers to questions such as, "Where did federal stimulus dollars go in Florida?" or, "How much is invested in programs for veterans?" would find answers easily and quickly on the Transparency 2.0 website. While the cost of site maintenance has been raised as an issue, many other states have demonstrated significant cost savings in the use of such sites that are greater than the estimated annual maintenance costs of Transparency 2.0. Questions have also been raised about the procurement process for Spider Data Services. That is ironic since the Transparency 2.0 website, which offers the most detailed and comprehensive history of every state vendor contract available, would provide complete transparency on any such proposals.
The Transparency 2.0 website, if made public, would put state government contracts, spending, government employee salaries and agency budgets online for all Floridians to read in plain language and in one place. Budget transparency reform through the launch of Transparency 2.0 would place a significant spotlight on how Florida government awards state contracts to outside businesses, making the procurement process more transparent — and accessible — for Floridians. Our government will be able to live within its means and balance the state budget with a clear view of the source of every dollar in the budget and where and why it is spent.
The only way for citizens to get the biggest bang for their taxpayer bucks is to give them the tools to easily see and track where their money goes, both in and out of state government, to understand how government spends their money and why. With Transparency 2.0, Floridians — our leaders and our residents — will have access to vitally important budget information at their fingertips, information that will allow government to be more efficient and our citizens more informed.
The First Amendment Foundation and Integrity Florida strongly recommend that the governor and our legislative leaders take the steps necessary to provide a globally competitive level of budget transparency and public access to information through the public launch of Transparency 2.0.
Barbara A. Petersen, far left, is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for open government. Dan Krassner, above right, is the executive director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research institute and government watchdog.