Our state needs to improve COVID spending transparency to increase public trust
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Our state needs to improve COVID spending transparency to increase public trust

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Editor’s note: Today’s guest editorial comes from The Seattle Times. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

Gov. Jay Inslee should improve transparency of the state’s massive spending on COVID-19 supplies.

As reported this week by The Associated Press, Washington is among states doing a middling job disclosing this spending online.

Transparency and accurate information are needed to maintain trust in states’ virus response programs, and to provide accountability amid the tsunami of state and federal crisis spending.

The risk of gouging and waste also goes down if the public can easily see how its dollars are being spent. This is especially important because the state suspended its normal competitive bidding process for crisis-related spending.

Maximizing transparency should be a priority for Inslee, in particular, after questions were raised about his cousin seeking a contract to supply the state with protective equipment. Seattle Times reporters used public records to reveal that incident. Inslee passed along his cousin’s interest in brokering supplies, prompting a quick response from procurement officials, but it ultimately didn’t result in a deal.

Inslee has advocated for transparency and supported the state’s public-records and open-meetings acts. He should also actively share COVID-19 spending details, using software and websites at hand, so taxpayers can keep track without having to submit records requests.

In the AP’s check of all 50 states’ disclosure practices, Illinois was found to be a model.

Illinois provides a dynamic dashboard with weekly totals of cumulative COVID-19 spending and a list of vendors, the amounts they received and what was purchased. The Illinois dashboard uses software built in this state, by Seattle-based Tableau.

Washington displays some information about spending and a list of COVID-19 vendors. But that list does not disclose how much vendors were paid or what they provided.

Just finding the vendor list is tricky. It’s a small link far down on a state Enterprise Services website, below explanations of which buildings are open on the Capitol campus and minutiae such as the frequency of light switch washings in conference rooms. It’s also linked from a sub-section of the state’s coronavirus web page, with information about personal protective equipment.

Immediately creating a custom dashboard may be a lot to ask during a crisis. But the state might be able to easily increase disclosure on existing websites such as the Open Checkbook fiscal site, said Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government. Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member, noted that local governments are tagging crisis spending so they can seek federal reimbursement; that also makes it easier to identify and disclose.

Most Washingtonians won’t look at this information, but “it creates trust just to know that they could if they wanted to,” Nixon said.

Enterprise Services is working on a new crisis spending dashboard. That effort is appreciated, but it may take several weeks to launch and some details about purchases may have to wait for a later version, according to a spokesperson.

Inslee should expedite and elevate the profile of these disclosure tools. Counties and cities should also find ways to actively disclose details of COVID-19 spending.

Washington’s initial response to the outbreak was a model. Now, as the pandemic drags on and costs mount, it should also raise the bar for transparency.

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