Checkbook register online
Checkbook register online refers to the movement to empower people to scrutinize and oversee government by asking that government agencies post their checkbook registers online in an easily accessible, searchable format.
Like an individual’s checkbook, a government agency's checkbook register will include a transaction number, a date, the name of a payee (e.g., a vendor or an employee) and a dollar amount. It also will include a budget object code and, usually, a short memo explaining the expenditure (e.g., “purchase of six Dell computers” or “travel expense reimbursement”).
Peyton Wolcott starts it off
The movement for public school districts to post their checkbook registers online originated with Texas education activist and journalist Peyton Wolcott. Wolcott inaugurated the National School District Honor Roll on her website on October 1, 2006. At that time, the list of school districts posting their check registers online was of four smaller school districts in Wolcott's home state of Texas.
Wolcott maintains a roster of school districts that have joined the move to post check registers online. As of mid-August 2008, the list included 251 school districts in 14 states.
Privacy and other policy issues
There are few, if any, technical reasons why a government entity cannot simply publish all the data categories tracked by its business office. Government entities may, however, raise legitimate concerns when urged to publish details like payee addresses or links to the contracts under which expenditures are made.
- For public schools, posting certain checkbook register data may make it possible to identify students with special medical needs. In addition to potential harm done to individuals, the school may be exposed to legal liabilities.
- Publishing the addresses of teachers receiving reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses makes it easier for vendors to target unwanted commercial pitches.
- Publishing the addresses of teachers receiving reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses can make it easier to harass unpopular teachers.
- Inclusion of full administrative detail like accounting codes may reduce the usefulness of the data to most citizens, if only by making reports too long to print out conveniently. For example, tracking money flows in a medium-sized Pennsylvania school district requires approximately 15,000 distinct accounting codes. These should be available on request but not necessarily published automatically.
Minimizing these problems may require either human judgment on a case-by-case basis or software programming that automatically blanks out some information within sensitive line-item categories. They need not be accepted as excuses for publishing nothing, nor should they be dismissed quickly. A reasonable goal for transparency advocates is online posting of enough information (check number, payee, date, dollar amount and purpose) to facilitate asking specific questions without inviting abuses or defeating the goals of citizen participation.
A cautionary note on online check registers (not an objection in principle) is that they may focus public attention on small, specific expenses, which are usually easy to understand, but do little to illuminate complex decisions that drive the bulk of every district’s total budget costs.
In California, small-businessman and community activist Steve Mozena started promoting his idea for what he called “post the finances” in 1999. On this website, Mozena calls for all government departments and agencies to post their finances to their respective websites every day, in the form of a simple online checkbook. Mozena made “post the finances” a major plank in his 2001 campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles, his 2004 run for mayor of Carson, California, and his runs for councilmember of Carson in 2005 and 2007. He also attempted to have a “post the finances” ballot initiative created in California in 2003.
Some states post spending details
Alaska started publishing parts of its checkbook register in early 2008.
The "Arkansas Financial Transparency Act" was passed by the legislature in March 2011; Gov. Mike Beebe signed the bill into law on March 17. The law will create an online database of state expenditures, slated to launch on July 1, 2012. See proposed changes to Arkansas FOIA for more.
SB 57, which sought to require Colorado school districts to post their budgets online in searchable formats passed the Senate in Colorado but was defeated by the House. See proposed changes to CORA for more.
Nebraska state treasurer Shane Osborn created a website called Nebraska Spending in September 2007 that discloses many categories of state spending. On May 14, 2008, the website expanded to include information about state contracts over $20,000 and state expenditures over $500,000. The site also now includes an interactive 93 county map showing a breakdown of local property taxes and state aid information.
In September 2007, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina created a new website through executive order that allows the public to search many types of state expenditures. Sanford also called on all cabinet agencies to build their own online databases of internal travel and office supply expenses.
In January 2007, Gov. Rick Perry proposed requiring all state agencies to publish expenditures online in a clear and consistent format.
The Texas Budget Source, a private website sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, started publishing many state spending details online in July 2008.
Groups advocating registers online
|Colorado SB 57|
| "If you can't defend it,|
don't spend it"
- In Colorado, Colorado Spending Transparency has organized to advocate for checkbook registers online.
- In South Carolina, the South Carolina Policy Council issued a report in January 2009 requesting this reform.
| "A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
- James Madison, American president
- peytonwolcott.com, "The National School District Honor Roll," April 18, 2007
- School Board Transparency, "Check register posting is transparency too little, too late," December 2, 2008
- Nebraska Spending, "Phase 2 of Nebraska Spending," accessed November 19, 2014
- ntu.org, "Taxpayer Group Applauds South Carolina Governor, Nebraska Treasurer for Putting State Spending Online," accessed November 19, 2014