Transparency on the Cheap in Oregon: Transparency Delayed is Transparency Denied

When you visit the Oregon Transparency website homepage, http://www.oregon.gov/transparency/Pages/index.aspx, you quickly realize that the familiar, everyday idea of “transparency” — which calls up images of a big picture window, letting you see into the operations inside the building as they are happening — does not really apply to the state’s transparency website. Instead, with “transparency, Oregon style,” we get something more like the transparency of the three-card monte dealer: Everything appears to be out in the open, but in reality you can’t follow the cards no matter how hard you try.

Start with currency. Without current information, a “transparency” website isn’t a portal onto what’s happening now, but rather it’s a kind of yearbook onto the past. (Given that agencies choose whether to give information to DAS for posting on the transparency site, it’s a yearbook with missing pages and no overall table of contents.) As of this issue #42 of OregonPEN, published on 5 December 2015, the Oregon Transparency website proudly boasts that it is current up through June 30, 2014:Unless otherwise specified, data provided throughout this website is current as of June 30, 2014. In general, data\content is updated  on an annual basis.”

Next, consider organization, as in most information throughout the site is posted by agency name rather than by size of the agency budget or any other relevant organizational scheme that would communicate something to the reader. This has the neat effect of making it nearly impossible to form a coherent understanding of the overall state budget, despite the plethora of data. Indeed, a few hours spent on the Oregon Transparency website is a crash course on what it means to be a DRIP: “Data Rich, Information Poor.” The site practices obfuscation by revelation of disorganized data and resembles a madhouse library where the books were all shelved according to thickness and color rather than subject or author.

Below is a report about the transparency website to the Legislature from early 2015
Synopsis: “SEND MONEY OR EXPECT MORE OF THE SAME.”

HB 3035 (2013) Response
Transparency Website Plan
 
February 2015
Prepared by The Department of Administrative Services
 
Prepared for The Oregon Legislative Assembly Per House Bill 3035 (2013)
 
OVERVIEW                                                                                                                                                                                                                                
History of Transparency Website
The Department of Administrative Services (DAS) was directed to create a transparency website by HB 2500 (2009) within current agency resources. Since the creation of the website there have been several bills passed requesting additional information be made available on the website. To meet the requirements of previous legislative mandates DAS has created a website with information provided by entities owning the needed data, and links to information maintained in other systems and on other websites. In many cases, DAS does not maintain the information requested and has to work with many state and local partners to gain access to the data for the website. Currently, maintaining the site is done by one individual in the DAS Office of the Chief Information Officer; this individual is responsible for the transparency website in addition to other regular full- time duties. Despite limited resources to create and maintain the transparency website, Oregon was ranked second in the nation in providing online access to government spending data, by U.S. PIRG’s “Follow the Money 2014” report.
 
HB3035 Requirements
During the 2013 legislative session, HB 3035 was passed requiring DAS to develop a plan to add additional contracting information to the transparency website, including information for school districts and community colleges. This report is intended to meet the requirements of HB 3035.
 
Current State of Transparency Website
Maintaining the transparency website is a manual and time-consuming process. Currently one staff person is assigned to manage and maintain the transparency website, in addition to their regular duties. Managing and maintaining the website consists of many different activities and tasks. An example of some of the primary duties are included in the table below:

At this time, information is submitted from contributors via email or other electronic means, as data owners are currently unable to load information to the website themselves. Currently, most data must be updated during the end of the calendar year, which creates a large burden in both acquiring information and updating the information on the website. The manual approach to maintaining the website combined with the lack of staff time available leaves little time for a higher level review and assessment of information being added.
 
In addition to the manual nature of receiving and posting data to the transparency website there are also limitations in what data and data sets are readily available. The State of Oregon operates many legacy systems. These systems hold and maintain a vast amount of data and information, but were developed long before the transparency website. In many cases these systems do not have the reporting capabilities needed to readily report data and information. Overtime, system work arounds have been developed to assist agencies with day- to-day data needs, this further increases the complexity of getting and sharing data and information across the enterprise in a standardized format for the transparency website. Enterprise initiatives and planning projects are currently being launched that will start the process of updating many of these legacy systems. As these systems are upgraded, more data will likely be available to meet reporting requirements.
 
 REPORTING PROCESS AND STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT                                                                                                                            
To gain an understanding of the website and the work necessary to meet the requirements discussed in HB 3035, the DAS Office of the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and the Chief Information Office (CIO) worked with external stakeholders. In addition to meeting the requests contained in HB 3035, the DAS Office of the COO and the CIO determined that this provided an opportunity to look at the website as a whole and work to develop a plan that included stakeholder identified opportunities for improvement. Stakeholders involved in discussion about the website, included: members of the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission, Governor’s Office representative, union representatives, and public interest groups.
 
Discussions with stakeholders revealed they were generally pleased with the amount of information currently available on the transparency website. However, there were several trends identified relating to what stakeholders would like to see in terms of functionality on the website in the future:
 

  • Increased ability to conduct basic and advanced searches for data and information, available throughout the transparency website.
  • More information from local governments.
  • Create a site that is more like ORESTAR.
  • More information about outcomes when using public funds.
  • Need for consistency in the way information is reported and presented – making it easier for users to understand.
  • More timely information – as data currently provided for posting is often a year in arrears, there is often a lag in the data and information posted.

Based on conversations it was clear there are two types of users that access the transparency website: individuals and organizations or advocacy groups. The latter group generally review information available to formulate opinions or reports about the data presented. It is important that DAS keeps these groups in mind as updates and enhancements are considered.
 
As of the date of this report, for the 2015 legislative session three House Bills and two Senate Bills have been introduced, containing requirements for additional information and/or links to be added to the transparency website. DAS will continue to monitor the bills as they move through the session to ensure any requests made are included in future plans for the transparency website.
 
FUTURE STATE ANALYSIS – NEEDS AND OUTCOMES
 
Funding Continued at Status Quo Level
Without funding DAS will continue to maintain the website in its current format. The website will continue to function as it does currently without making any enhancements to increase functionality, the addition of new data items, or features.
 
Limited Additional Funding and Resources
The current website exists through a strategic sourcing contract with NicUSA. As part of this agreement and for no additional contract costs, the website can be redesigned to increase ease of use and add some elements to enhance search ability. Though there wouldn’t be additional cost on the contract, it is estimated this effort would take approximately 500 additional staff hours, spread over ten to twelve months, to work on the new design elements, manage the current website data for the transition, and move all of the existing data into the newly redesigned web portal. The additional staff hours would cost DAS approximately $14,000.
 
Ability to Meet Current and Future Needs of Stakeholders
One of the biggest barriers to getting data and information on the transparency website, besides adequate resources, is the existing limitations of current state legacy information systems. Without significant upgrades to these legacy systems, there are some elements of data and information that stakeholders would like to see that will not be available for presentation through the transparency website. As major legacy systems are replaced, (i.e. human resource, finance, procurement, etc.) the availability of data and information for the transparency website will likely increase.
 
 HB3035 RESPONSE                                                                                                                                                                                                              
Below is a response to each element of data requested in HB3035 SECTION 1.
 

  1. Information on expenditures made by state agencies under contracts, including the text of contracts and information on the work to be performed, or products or services to be provided, under the contracts.

DAS does not currently collect information on payments made on a contract by contract basis. Each agency is responsible for ensuring contract payments made are within the terms of the contract language. Gathering the information from individual agencies, standardizing it for usability on the website, and maintaining it for future use is not feasible within current resources at DAS. DAS does collect vendor reported volume sales reports from vendors participating in statewide price agreements and could make those available on the transparency website, but would need to work to update the format of information reported for consistency and ease of use by transparency site users.
 
At this time there is not a feasible way to collect contract text to be placed on the transparency website. Per OAR 125-246-0500 the Oregon Procurement Information System (ORPIN) is the official publication forum for state Procurement notices and advertisements. Though some agencies do upload full contracts into ORPIN there is no simple method to extract this information from the system. The resulting data and information at best, would be a series of PDF documents that would likely be unsearchable by users and take up a great deal of space on the transparency website. The state contracting information already provided on the website does have a field for award title and in most cases this field gives a high level explanation of the work to be performed. Users of the website can reference the information that is already available to make a public records request for the full text of the contract.
 

  1. Information regarding the terms of state agency contracts that is listed by categories, such as contracts not yet completed and anticipated completion dates, in a manner that allows persons accessing the website to search each category separately. 

The state contracting information already provided on the transparency website when selected, opens in a data viewer on data.oregon.gov and allows the user to easily sort and search through the data.

They may also download the data set in a wide range of formats (i.e. csv, pdf, Excel (xls), etc.) The information provided includes, but is not limited to: agency name, award title, award type, contractor information, original start date, amendment date, anticipated expiration date, original award value, amendment value, and total award value.
 

  1. Information regarding vendors and other contractors under state agency contracts that is listed by categories, such as, city, state, and zip code of a vendor’s or contractor’s residence, in a manner that allows persons accessing the website to search each category separately.

The state contracting information provided on the transparency website already contains the data elements requested above. The information when selected, opens in a data viewer on data.oregon.gov and allows the user to easily sort and search through the data. They may also download the data set in a wide range of formats (i.e. csv, pdf, Excel (xls), etc.).
 

  1. Findings or determinations under ORS 279B.030 and 279B.036, and supporting documentation for those findings or determinations.

Work related to these determinations is not currently completed or maintained by DAS, they are performed on an as needed basis by agencies. There are approximately 400 – 600 determinations made in any given fiscal year. Due to the volume of determinations it is not feasible for DAS to collect and post this information to the transparency website at this time.
 

  1. Annual revenue, annual expenditures and contracting and subcontracting information for school districts and community colleges.

 
The Oregon Department of Education (ODE) currently collects data and maintains a website that includes information related to school district revenues and expenditures (http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=1722). The Community Colleges and Workforce Development (CCWD) department collects similar revenue and expenditure data and information for Oregon’s community colleges. This data and information collected by CCWD is not currently available online to the public, but could be added to the transparency website.
 
At this time neither ODE nor CCWD collect information related to contracting and subcontracting information for school districts or community colleges. Based on conversations with the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) and the Oregon Community Colleges Association (OCCA) it appears this   data and information could be made available within current resources if parameters were set to limit the scope of contracting information to be reported. Both groups agreed providing information on contracts that are competitively solicited through a formal procurement process with a value over $150,000 would create an additional workload, but could be feasible within current resources. DAS would recommend this as a first step in gaining access to this information. DAS will need to work with ODE, CCWD, OSBA, and OCCA to develop a reporting template and process for submitting information to the transparency website. This process should be completed by the end of 2015, allowing users of the site to see school district and community college contracting information in early 2016.
 
 CONCLUSIONS                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
DAS can meet several of the requests of HB 3035 with the engagement and active assistance of data owners. This work will require the development of new reporting mechanisms for the school districts and community colleges, which can be completed within their current resources given an appropriate set of parameters setting limits on what information will be reported. Overall, the inability to provide the data and information  requested in many situations, is primarily due to the use of legacy systems that make data and information difficult to report and share.
 
DAS believes the transparency website is an important tool that gives citizens and other interested parties access to information about state government. Without additional resources DAS will continue to meet expectations as best it can. Below is a potential plan of action to upgrade and update the transparency website and associated resources.

 By dedicating additional resources DAS would have the ability to add limited enhancements. This would create a web portal with increased functionality, features, and a more user-friendly look and feel.