February 24, 2010
This February Cook County launched a new online check register that gives the public access to how the County spends its money. The County Board of Commissioners approved a resolution to create the online check register in 2009. It is one component of the County’s new Open County Initiative website, which it developed in order to improve its governmental transparency and accountability to its taxpayers. The Open County Initiative website consists of four sections: the check register, budget and finance, government and property and taxes. Content is organized according to recommendations made by the Sunshine Review, an organization that advocates for better transparency and accountability in government. Those recommendations are listed along with a description of the County’s response to the recommendation and a link to a website or document that provides the necessary information.
The check register section of the website contains information for County checks written against contracts. Presently, the website only contains information for checks issued in December of 2009; however, newer data will be regularly added to the website over time. The site lets users search for checks by payee name, check number, purchase order (PO) number and business unit code. Search results yield information for the four keywords, the amount paid to the payee and a description of the goods or services provided by the payee.
With the implementation of the check register, Cook County joins other governments making similar online transparency and accountability efforts. DuPage County’s website has a webpage entitled Transparency in Government, which allows users to search for individual county expenditures by department, vendor, purchase order, check number and budget category.
Search results yield information for the keywords, a brief description of what was purchased and the total payment to the vendor. DuPage County’s database contains expenditure data going back to FY2004. At the bottom of each search result webpage, the website cautions that the data is not audited and provides a number for users to call if they suspect any waste, fraud or abuse of county funds.
The State of Arizona also operates an online checkbook website that tracks the State’s Operating Cash Balance. The website provides daily and monthly updates of trends in statewide and agency spending and a daily report of total deposits and withdrawals from the State’s Operating Account. Records for the State’s Daily Operating Cash Balance data go back to July 2009 and average monthly Operating Cash Balance data records go back to July 1990. The Arizona online checkbook’s information is organized into five categories: operating balances, revenues and expenditures, statewide spending, revenue distributions and by agency. The website does not allow users to search for payments to individual vendors, but it does provide a snapshot of how the State and its agencies use taxpayer dollars.
The Civic Federation commends Cook County for creating its Open County Initiative website and the online check register. The Federation urges the County to continue implementing its stated goals for improving the Open County Initiative website as described in the Sunshine Review’s recommendations. The Federation recommends that the County provide clear contact information for users of the online check register interested in asking questions or reporting suspected waste or improper use of county funds. The online check register, coupled with the Open County Initiative’s other web pages, and the Secretary of the Board’s innovative use of Twitter indicates that the County is making efforts to using the web to make itself more transparent and accountable to County residents.