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“We garnered the nation’s first perfect score on transparency” | State of Ohio Treasury official discusses Ohiocheckbook.com at LABI annual meeting


February 9, 2018
By McHugh David
Originally Posted on The Livingston Parish News

BATON ROUGE - Despite a strange accent and a fanship of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Ohio State Treasurer public relations officer Frank Kohstall had a room full of Bayou State business leaders enraptured in his presentation.

His focus? Simply, to propel government forward with technology and provide financial transparency to state residents.

The real-life application of that focus manifested itself in the form of ohiocheckbook.com - a brain child of Kohstall's boss, Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel. The site manages the financial network of Ohio's state government and transforms search results and transaction records - that normally appear as a difficult to navigate "data dump" - into easy-to-digest formats, including singular transactions and charts.

"Most government records are still kept on spread sheets, and that information is just dumped somewhere online," Kohstall said in an interview. "There are 170 million transactions done at the state level per year... that's a ton.

"The goal was to produce something that resonated with constituents, so we have 35 pieces of information per transaction, including things as basic as individual checks written by a specific governmental entity. People can look at them and say, 'Oh, look, there's the date; there's the pay to line; the signature - yeah, I've seen that."

Treasurer Mandel's mantra was rooted in baseball - he was interested in singles and doubles, not home runs. Therefore, the site took some time to construct but Mandel and his team wanted to be sure they got it right. As such, the team focused on building a site that followed four basic principals - a Google-style search bar; interactive graphs; diverse information available on a per transaction basis; and the ability to compare the amount spent on a specific item or expenditure between two different entities.

"If the Department of Transportation bought some pencils, we want to be sure the state-funded cosmetology school pays the same amount for those pencils," Kohstall said.

That information was available and ready to be compiled due to a homogenized accounting system adopted by the Ohio State Legislature in 2007. While the system does not rely on blockchain technology - real-time ledger updates from multiple sources - the fact that individual transaction information is available keeps reporting entities honest, Kohstall said.

From there, the treasurer's office began offering local governmental entities - including cities, counties, school boards, and small districts - their own version of the site, at no cost. So far, of the roughly 3900 government sectors in Ohio, 1300 are on board... and that number is growing.

Ohiocheckbook.com's success prompted Louisiana Association of Business & Industry (LABI) President/CEO Stephen Waguespack to reach out to Treasurer Mandel's office. With the looming "fiscal cliff" to be decided at the Louisiana Legislature, who's sessions begins in March, Waguespack's group is pushing for an adoption of something that can keep more accurate tallies of state expenditures.

And, it already has a name - LACheckBook.com, complete with a Facebook and Twitter account.

"The game changes, and it changes fast with technology," Waguespack said. "So technology is cool, it changes the way you all do business - but what is a bit dated, is how government has utilized it (technology.)"

Waguespack cited the emergence of LaTRAC (Louisiana Transparency & Accountability), an online site - released in 2008 - which was supposed to serve the same function as Ohiocheckbook.com. Unfortunately, the LaTRAC user interface has not been updated since that 2008 release and, as Waguespack points out, the delivery method is dated.

Enter Randy Davis, Louisiana Assistant Commissioner of Administration (CoA), from Jay Dardenne's office, who was allowed several minutes to address the crowd. The day before the LABI presentation CoA Dardenne described the budget and financial transparency as a 'red herring' issue.

Davis' comments were that the commissioner and Governor John Bel Edwards supported financial transparency. He went on to say that the Governor's office had developed a three-year plan to update LaTRAC to better standards, but a project such as LACheckbook.com could not be adopted immediately for several reasons - budgetary issues; political scraps; technological issues for some departments; and only six departments total currently have a homogenized accounting and transaction reporting system.

In a question posed to Kohstall during a Q&A session shortly after Davis' comments, the audience member asked about the final budget of the site's setup and maintenance, as well as political support.

According to Kohstall, the final bill was just shy of $800,000 - with a $3,000 - $5,000 maintenance fee per month. The site also received bi-partisan support, with previous Ohio State Treasurer John Armstrong (a democrat) supporting the measure.

"There's a lot of anxiety about this "gotcha" moment," Kohstall said. "Journalists can't wait to dive in and are looking for that piece of information that's just perfect, but so far it hasn't been there.

"Don't be afraid to rip the band-aid off, it turns out it doesn't hurt - at all."