Putting in perspective Utah’s D- ranking from the Center for Public Integrity

The Center for Public Integrity’s integrity ranking of states, deservedly, is getting a lot of attention nationwide. CPI has a reputation for careful and thorough investigation, and earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for it. That is to say, their work is worth noting. So, what should we take away from Utah’s D- grade in the report?

Putting in perspective Utah's D- ranking from the Center for Public Integrity
by Jason Williams (no, that’s not Jason; it’s Don Imus. But who’s keeping track, anyway?)

When it comes to reports of this type, it’s important to remember they can be subjective. “Integrity” in the areas studied can mean different things to different “good government” advocates. For example, the CPI report dings Utah for an elections office with no embedded investigative arm. Some government transparency advocates would rate this a plus, in that investigations remain independent (hired out at greater cost) and somewhat distanced from becoming a political tool.

Utah also takes a hit for lack of investigations or penalties by the Attorney General’s office into abusers of open records rules. But CPI also mentions several times that the records committee exposed potential abusers and corrected the abuse. Criticizing the lack of pro-active pursuit of abuse is legitimate, but so is acknowledging the mechanisms in place that have served well when problems come about. In another portion of the report, Utah loses points for a sixty-day-response-time rule, and CPI sets thirty days as the line between integrity or the lack thereof? I agree with CPI on this one, but does 60 vs 30 days mean Utah is swirling the drain as a D- grade implies?

No. I don’t mean to undercut the credibility of the CPI report in its ability to highlight problematic issues and trouble areas. It should be taken seriously as a snapshot. But it is just that: a snapshot. It doesn’t account for intent or an ongoing focus of lawmakers, the executive, state agencies, and even many counties and cities.

Much of Utah’s D- grade in the CPI Integrity report stems from political finance and oversight issues. Few states scored high in the report. Our lowest rankings are attributed to a lack of ethics enforcement agencies (41st), loose political financing rules (40th), anti-corruption checks in civil service management (42nd), executive accountability (45th), and — our lowest ranking — state pension fund transparency (49th). But Utah ranked highest, relative to other states, in public access to information (2nd), procurement transparency (3rd), budget transparency (7th), legislative accountability (13th), and internal auditing (15th), and electoral oversight (17th). Those are not rankings to ignore.

Putting in perspective Utah's D- ranking from the Center for Public Integrity
Stars & Stripes along with the Utah state flag fly outside the Utah State Capitol building.
Copyright © 2014 Jeff McGrath. All photos are Copyright protected. Use of images is prohibited without written consent of the Copyright owner.

To my point in writing this: Did Utah rank 2nd, 3rd, and 7th in the nation on public access to information, budget transparency and procurement openness by accident?

No. Absolutely not. And that intent, that work in progress, to me, speaks of integrity. Could Utah benefit from a tightening of campaign finance rules and a more aggressive ethics watchdog entities? Yes. Could certain exemptions be undone to bring greater light on the use of taxpayer funds and public business? Yes. Could GOED at least try to present some data on ROI? And how.  And is that 49th ranking on public pension fund transparency an eyesore? Indeed. (For what it’s worth, Sen. Henderson’s quasi-public entity reporting measure would’ve opened up administrative reporting in retirement services, where Utah got its lowest rank from CPI. In the end, an exemption had to be carved out for them after they threatened to sink the entire bill over a requirement to report administrative salaries. Oh, and, in no small part, because I naively tipped Dan Liljenquist off on that requirement the night before the committee. Then I ruined Robert Gehrke’s lunch yelling at Dan in the cafeteria after the meeting. But I digress, in my bitterness…)

In the past two years that I’ve been on the Utah Transparency Advisory Board, and in my previous involvement with the governor’s 2011 GRAMA Work Group, I’ve seen how seriously Utah Senate leadership takes the concepts of access and openness in government. I’ve had conversations with House representatives concerned we aren’t moving fast enough with new technology that can make public records requests a more responsive process. I’ve had in-depth conversations with state agency heads sincerely interested in understanding “open data standards” and their role in transparency and access.

Putting in perspective Utah's D- ranking from the Center for Public IntegrityRight now (literally, as you read this) state archivists, experienced records committee members, and the Department of Technology are continuing work to standardize and publish best data practices and introduce public records requests/responses to your smart phone! Utah now has a state data coordinator, Drew Mingl, whose job it is to coordinate with branches, agencies, cities, and counties in getting their data online, and in usable formats. Goals have been set that will put Utah ahead of every curve in the next few years when it comes to public data and access. Just yesterday I had a phone conversation with a lawmakers (at his request, I swear) on what a hackathon is and how such events can improve awareness and use of public data.

I’m too realistic (or cynical?) to be an apologist for any shortcomings the CPI report reveals. I’m always frustrated Rep. Brian King’s work on campaign finance isn’t taken more seriously by the House.  I still can’t believe you can be a registered lobbyist and lawmaker at once in Utah. Excuses are running thin for not publishing policy makers’ calendars online. When it comes to open data, the process has been slower than I’d have liked, the scope too often reduced by legislative processes, or budgetary concerns. Sometimes I’m frustrated the Transparency Advisory Board hasn’t gotten to this or that yet. Other times I’m blown away by what has been achieved, like, OpenData.Utah.Gov.

I wouldn’t say take the CPI D-grade with a grain of salt. I’d say process it, absorb it, and give it credence if only because of CPI’s reputation. I’d also say keep this report, and others you’ll see like it, in a broad perspective. Consider the direction we’re headed in your own Integrity meters. We may not be where we could be yet in Utah. But it’s been my experience there is more sincere support than indifference or even outright opposition for moving rapidly toward increased access and openness.

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