When Susan Combs took office as Texas State Comptroller of Public Accounts in January 2007, she posed a seemingly simple question: "Where does all the money go?"

Firmly believing that government must be fully accountable to the people it serves, she and her staff went to work using technology to enable transparency for the state. Within three days after taking office, her team had posted the expenses for the comptroller's office on the Web. But they did not stop there.

The Open Book Project

Building on the success of posting their expenses down to the cost of each pencil, Combs' team began the Open Book Project, a far-reaching effort to bring transparency to state spending. The first task was to ask 23 state agencies, representing more than 80 percent of spending, to share their data, which was classified by a combination of general ledger object of expenditure codes and/or NIGP Code. By June 2007, the online searchable database contained the spending data for all state agencies. By Oct. 1, 2007, nine months after the start of the initiative, a virtual check register went up on the Web, and every check, every agency and every recipient could be seen online.

The Open Book Texas Web site is the portal that was created by the initiative. Residents, agencies and local governments can access the site to research spend data or access tools, including: Where the Money Goes, which uses the commodity code to report spending by state agencies down to the pencil; Texas Stimulus Impact, which allows users to see and track money from the federal stimulus package; and Texas Transparency Check-up, which allows users to see how Texas cities, counties, schools and other local entities are giving a transparent look at their books.

Where the money goes

The Where the Money Goes page provides a robust set of reporting tools for users, including:

Payment search tools

  • State agency search: who is spending what

  • Vendor search: who is being paid by the state

  • Spending category search: by categories

  • Spending by purchase code (commodity code): reporting for the largest state agencies

    Budget and expenditure search tools

  • Agency budget versus actuals: agencies' total spending tracks against their strategy budgets

  • Expenditures by agency strategy: spending by category for each agency strategy

  • Expenditures by funding source: agency spending by category of revenue source

The payoff for the state

Providing transparency so the public can research spending is one thing, but using the data to save money is the real payoff. Since taking office, Combs' team has identified $8.7 million in potential savings and has realized $4.8 million. From a strategic sourcing perspective, the agency now is conducting more detailed research to find and realize savings. "We have begun the intricate process of digging through the $1.2 billion the state spends per year through this division. In Phase One of our efforts, we looked at five spending categories (classes) to see if we could get a better deal for the state. We expect to save $28 million in Phase One of this smart buying initiative," Combs says. "We will continue to push for savings wherever and whenever possible — it's our duty to our taxpayers."

John Walters is the president of NIGP Code Services at Periscope Holdings, the custodian of the NIGP Code on behalf of NIGP. Walters has been involved in public procurement since 1997 and has served as a consultant, trainer and speaker. Contact him at john@nigp.com.