SD opens door on its fiscal data
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE — South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed an executive order this week requiring the regular release of data related to state revenue, expenditure and cash balance.
It’s the latest of several steps toward transparency in state government in the last few years, but open government advocates contend the state still has work to do. House Democratic Minority Leader Bernie Hunhoff called the efforts small steps in the right direction.
The financial reports, also called a “dashboard report,” present a partial view of how the state is doing. Daugaard has received paper versions every month from the state Bureau of Finance and Management, and the plan to digitize and publicize the information took shape in the last month.
“If you’re managing an organization, it gives you the high level of statistics to show how you’re doing week to week, month to month,” said Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard’s director of policy and communications.
He said the reports may prove useful to legislators, journalists and interested members of the public. South Dakota has been rated poorly for lack of government openness compared to other states by the State Integrity Investigation, a partnership of media and watchdog groups. State legislators and advocates have criticized state policies for the same reason.
Since taking office the governor has taken steps to make state government more transparent — including updating the open.sd.gov website and launching rules.sd.gov — as well as convening a task force on open government in 2012.
Venhuizen cautioned that the data presents only part of the picture, and that lack of context or interpretation caught the attention of David Bordewyk, the general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association.
“How does the public interpret that? How does the public use that data?” he asked. Bordewyk, who was pleased that transparency is still on Daugaard’s radar but believes more can be done, also said the press maintains the responsibility to help the public interpret the fi gures.
South Dakota received high marks in an April report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups Education Fund regarding online access to government spending data. The report touted public access to South Dakota’s annual tax expenditures and the fact that the state balances its checkbook every year.
One thing that’s missing from the dashboard reports is the ability to download the raw data for unique calculations and interpretations, said Emily Shaw, national policy manager for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on open government.
“Bulk download is usually necessary to empower deeper journalistic and academic research and analysis of trends,” Shaw said in an email. She said that other states, including Indiana and Vermont, share similar information online.
Hunhoff said the information that’s presented in South Dakota is selective. He said there are technological limitations and limitations of intent — that is, what officials want to share.
“We shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking we have true transparency in South Dakota,” he said.