State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

State website compiles data available under open records law

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Dec 21, 2012 1:54 PM
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Photo by pennwatch.pa.gov

Legislation passed a year and a half ago to create a “searchable” website with data on state spending has finally delivered PennWATCH.

The site, which went live Thursday afternoon, is not exactly searchable, with some exceptions. Employee salaries can be called up by searching for people by last name, for example. But for the most part, this is the kind of site you browse – and browse, and browse.

“One of the biggest obstacles to open government turns out to be the sheer quantity of information that any government possesses,” said Gov. Corbett at a press conference announcing the site’s debut. “Many other states have online public disclosure sites. We believe they’re not as easy to navigate as you find ours is going to be.”

The site shows information already subject to public disclosure under the state’s open records law – like state revenue, agency spending, and employee salaries.

Government reform activist Eric Epstein, of Rock the Capital, said he takes issue with the expiration dates that comes with the site’s compiled data – it includes no expense tallies from before this fiscal year starting in July 2011, and it will only keep data archived for eight years at a time.

“In order for us to tackle the problems, in order for taxpayers to make informed decisions; they need to see how we got there. And you know, my concern is, with the absence of historical data, there’s no context,” said Epstein. But he echoed a point made by state officials: the site is a work in progress.

According to Kelly Powell Logan, Secretary of the Office of Administration, which oversees PennWATCH, updates are already being considered, and expanding the information available on the site won’t require more legislative action.

Logan said more information on total employee compensation will be posted by mid-January, to comply with the legislation calling for the website.

“In the compensation section, you’ll actually see what will show up on that employee’s W-2 form, so you’ll see if the employee not only receives their salary, but [if] they also get overtime, that number would be included or will be included,” said Logan.

She added that some state employees’ full names won’t be listed, such as state police, agents in the Attorney General’s office, and some Department of Corrections employees.

The state has no estimate of the website’s cost, in dollars or in state employee time.

“This was all done in-house,” said Gov. Corbett.

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