State Integrity Investigation

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Why corruption matters in U.S. states

In late 2009 I was catching up at a Starbucks with Bill Buzenberg, the Executive Director at the Center for Public Integrity. I told Bill about some of the interesting research Global Integrity was doing at the municipal, state, regional, and provincial level in a number of countries. But I was frustrated, I said, by the lack of good data here in the United States about how state governments were actually set up when it came to anti-corruption enforcement and deterrence. It was easier for Global Integrity to find teams of qualified researchers in, say, Peru to assess region-level transparency and governance than it was to put together a similar effort in the U.S. states.

I worried that much of the attention in the U.S. at the state level had become too siloed and focused on particular pet rock issue areas: freedom of information, money in politics, open data, and state budgets to name a few. Was anyone looking at the whole picture? Did we have any idea which states were “hardwired to fail” when it came to corruption and governance?

“No,” Bill said. “But let’s fix that.” And thus the State Integrity Investigation was born.

Today marks an important milestone with respect to the pioneering State Integrity Investigation: we are making pre-publication data — all 16,500 data points — available to the public to comment on, raise questions about, and share more than a month before the “official” publication of the project results.

Why did the project partners decide to open ourselves up to this level of scrutiny? It might be helpful to review the history of how this incredible effort came to be.

Global Integrity, one of the three core partners of the State Integrity Investigation, has spent the better part of a decade tracking governance and corruption trends globally, including in North America. We’ve helped to pioneer some of the more innovative ways of assessing corruption risks and anti-corruption mechanisms at the national and sub-national levels in more than 120 countries by combining journalistic reporting with social science data gathering.

Along the way, we built some technology to help us gather and publish that information more efficiently, which explains how a staff of less than 15 spread across two continents has published more than 10 million words of text and more than 100,000 data points without going absolutely crazy. Those efforts have led to real change in a number of countries by providing both government and non-governmental organizations with solid information that can be used for evidence-based policymaking.

Early on in the project brainstorming, we made several important decisions that are already impacting the public uptake of this project:

  • We wanted to invest many months into talking to the country’s leading experts and advocates focused on state government before developing our methodology. Seventy-five interviews later we had the project’s 330 Integrity Indicators.
  • We wanted to work with the best and brightest experts we could find in each state to gather those data, and that meant recruiting leading statehouse reporters in every state.
  • We wanted to open the research and reporting process up to the public to ensure our results were as balanced and as accurate as possible. We made early decisions to publish the names of all of the lead reporters in each state, to find engaged and informed citizens to help review the draft data, and to (today) make pre-publication data available for public feedback before the official project launch. Many of those decisions were novel for Global Integrity, and we are anxiously awaiting early feedback to see whether some of this project’s experimental techniques can be applied to other efforts.

After all of the hard work by the reporters, project managers, editors, and online community team, a simple reality remains truer than ever: corruption matters in the states because it impacts people’s lives. Your state budgets are broken in part because governments have given too many tax breaks to special interests that fund politicians’ campaigns. Your roads are crumbling because tenders for infrastructure projects often go to politically connected companies, not those with the most competitive pricing or highest quality. Your elected leaders often operate with impunity because of broken information request systems, gutted state ethics commissions, and patronage controlled civil services.

For all of the attention paid in the past fifteen years to the crisis in governance at the national level in the United States — from Lincoln Bedroom scandals to Enron to McCain-Feingold, Citizens United, and Super PACs — we still struggle to understand whether things are better or worse at the state level. That’s what we hope this project will answer.

See your state’s corruption risk report card and email it your legislators. Together, we can inspire reform.

— Nathaniel Heller is the Executive Director of Global Integrity.

Filed under corruption reform legislation open government Transparency global integrity iWatch center for public integrity public radio international pri

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"The state level is very important": CPI’s Bill Buzenberg on C-SPAN [VIDEO]

Bill Buzenberg appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” Monday morning to talk about the inspiration for the State Integrity Investigation and the project’s findings. The Center for Public Integrity's Executive Director spoke at length with host John McArdle about the investigation, answering questions about why New Jersey ranked first, why Georgia ranked last, and why CPI, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International got involved with the investigation in the first place.

“The work is very serious,” Buzenberg said. “Those who have looked at it recognize how detailed it is, and how it will last a long time. This is going to have a very long shelf life.”

Buzenberg pointed out that the State Integrity Investigation had already been cited as evidence in reform efforts in five different states.

Buzenberg also took questions from callers, many of whom had the same question: “How did my state do?”

One caller from St. Louis, Missouri rang in to congratulate Buzenberg and decry the often unnoticed power lobbying groups wield in state government.

"I really don’t think that people truly understand the influence that — moreso, that their local governments and their state governments have on their lives, rather than the federal," she said. "So many reporters report on the federal government…there’s so much being slipped through with state governments, it’s amazing."

Buzenberg echoed the woman’s concerns, saying the leverage special interests have within state governments is a major concern, particularly with a weakened local press to keep tabs on the flow of power and influence.

"Lobbyists understand," Buzenberg said, "that they can move into 30-some states, help change the laws in those states, and they could effectively change the laws in the whole country. So, the state level is very important. We’re seeing less watchdog work at the state level — that was the real reason and impetus for this."

Buzenberg’s appearance on “Washington Journal” can be seen in its entirety.

Filed under corruption State Government global integrity public radio international PRI Bill Buzenberg C-SPAN CSPAN huffington post politico poynter sunshine laws sunlight foundation

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State Integrity Investigation raises questions about good government

By Gary Childress

Global Integrity’s research on corruption laws with state by state ranking certainly did bring questions in my mind.  I do understand that the research did not attempt to locate corruption but only looked at the structure to protect against corruption. One would expect a correlation between good corruption prevention structure and sound management and fiscal results.  Quite the reverse appears to be the case.

Recently 24/7 Wall St. published a study of the best-run statesWyoming was number one, Nebraska number two and if my memory serves me correctly the Dakotas were near the top.  The states at or near the top of Global Integrity’s list were typically the worst run states.

The various municipal credit rating organizations to the most part rate the bottom of the Global Integrity list higher credit than the top.  In fact most of the states with severe credit risk are near the top of Global’s ranking.  Why is there not a correlation?

I am not challenging your research, quite the reverse.  The fact that it leaves a question proves its merit.  As stated above: Why is there not a correlation?  This could be the question of another study.  The answers might be helpful to all states. 

There are likely many things going on other than the legal structure.  What are they?

Gary Childress is a retired businessman who divides his time between Wyoming and Connecticut.

You can email your state’s corruption risk report to your legislators card here.

Filed under PRI global integrity government iwatch nebraska open government politics transparency wyoming

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Ohio Democrats demand transparency task force in response to D grade

By Caitlin Ginley

Citing the Buckeye State’s D grade from the State Integrity Investigation, Democratic legislators in Ohio have called for a bipartisan task force to review current ethics laws and consider new legislation to strengthen accountability and transparency.

“We have a responsibility to the people of Ohio and it is simply unacceptable for us to fail to ensure government is working for Ohioan’s best interest at all times, not for special interest or influences,” said Rep. Jay Goyal (D-Mansfield), in a press conference held Tuesday.

In a letter to legislative leaders, the House Democrats noted “great concern over the recent ethics report from the State Integrity Investigation.”

Among the 14 categories on the state scorecard, they pointed out, Ohio only received two grades higher than a C-. The state failed three categories: legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure and redistricting.

Ohio also received D - grades for executive accountability and judicial accountability, D+ grades for pension fund management and insurance commissions, and C- grades for public access to information, political financing, procurement, and ethics enforcement. Rep. Ted Celeste (D-Grandview Heights) said the grades are not something to be proud of, especially since the state received F’s in a few individual categories.

“We should do everything we can to improve our efforts here,” he said.

In addition to its call for new legislation, the letter also asked for reconsideration of some earlier proposals. Celeste said House Democrats have previously put forth legislation that would address some of the gaps in Ohio’s ethics laws, but those bills have not received serious consideration. Celeste and his colleagues are calling for hearings on those measures, which include proposed new regulations on independent expenditures by corporations and unions and creation of a public financing system for judicial elections.

Those hearings would be held when the legislature returns from spring recess. Another bill would require that records of public-private partnerships, a growing trend in Ohio, be made available to the public. Rep. Matt Lundy (D-Elyria), who sponsored the bill, said these entities – like JobsOhio, a semi-private agency focused on economic development – spend state dollars but are not currently subject to the state’s open record laws.

“It’s hard to keep track of where the money is going,” Lundy said. “If you can’t follow the dollars, you can’t keep track of accountability.”

The fate of the Democrats’ recommendations seems uncertain at best. A spokesman for the Republican House speaker, William Batchelder, told the Columbus Dispatch that the speaker takes transparency and accountability seriously, but questioned the “flawed methodology” of the State Integrity Investigation. The GOP controls both the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office. Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, said he stands by the State Integrity Investigation’s methodology and reporting.

If you want your elected officials to take action, send them your state’s report card. Click on the “E-mail this score to your state official” button, and the report card will automatically fill in the e-mail address for your governor and state legislators. Connect with the leaders in your state, and get your report card to the people who represent you.

(Photo credit: Alexander Smith.)

Filed under corruption ohio politics open data open government republican house speaker columbus dispatch transparency accountability center for public integrity global integrity PRI