Sunlight Foundation

States of Transparency: Illinois

The Open Government Directive encouraged states to put valuable government data online. In this series we're reviewing each state's efforts in this direction.

This week: Illinois

Website: www.accountability.illinois.gov

In a state where good government groups have been working to increase transparency since the days of Al Capone, how is Illinois doing in bringing their transparency efforts into the 21st century? Quite well, say open government boosters like US Public Interest Research Group, who recently ranked the state third in their review of state websites designed to get crucial spending data online. Still, local transparency advocates can teach state officials a thing or two about making a site useful to reporters.

The state site, accountability.illinois.gov, features a database of expenditures and one of employee salaries. It's updated nightly, and is searchable by vendor name and contract number.

What it doesn't have is downloading capability. This is a huge oversight that makes it very difficult for reporters to analyze the data. A third party site, illinoisopengov.org, run by the free market-oriented Illinois Policy Institute, has requested the same data through Freedom of Information Act requests and, since December 2009, has been allowing csv or Excel downloads.

What's more, illinoisopengov.org allows you to drill down to the smallest expenditures; for example, you can find out that the Department of Employment Security spent $509 on Xerox High Speed Labels in 2009. And it's more searchable and sortable -- you can search within a dollar range, or by a description of the purchase. It's also easier to search through contracts and pensions, which are buried within the bowels of accountability.illinois.gov here and here. (Technically, contracts have their own section, but are only searchable there by contract number, which is useless to the average citizen).

The problem with illinoisopengov.org is that, because staff must rely on the FOIA process, the data is only updated about once a year. Now if the state site would simply incorporate some of illinoisopengov.org's features, we'd have the best of both worlds. Illinois state officials, we're waiting.

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