According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition for transparent is “easily detected or seen through” or “readily understood.”
Mississippi’s transparency.ms.gov website is more opaque than transparent. Its record of state expenditures have two separate links — one for before 2014 and one after that time. Searching through its database of thousands of state contracts is migraine-inducing chore unless you know what you’re looking for and to find it.
The reason for the two-headed approach to expenditures is the state’s switch to a $100 million statewide, standardized accounting system, the not-so-aptly named MAGIC (Mississippi Accountability System for Government Information and Collaboration) in 2014. Instead of the previous hodgepodge of different accounting software for every agency, all of state government are now singing from the same accounting hymnal.
Even when the state’s transparency has data available, it isn’t easy to mine. Part of transparency is “readily understood.” If there is even a small learning curve with the website, does that fit the standard?
The amount of permutations on the expenditure categories for state contracts makes the code for launching a mission to Mars look like long division in comparison. One of the biggest categories is “other fees and services” that covers a myriad range of services that defy description.
Then the way the MAGIC opens in a web browser is difficult since it doesn’t like the normal browser commands such as back. It reminds one of “2001: A Space Odyssey” when the murderous spaceship computer tells crewman Dave Bowman that he can’t open the pod bay doors.
“I’m sorry citizen, I can’t do that. Would you rather get mad about the state flag instead?”
During an investigation trying to find all of the state agencies and commissions that use contract lobbyists (the so-called self-licking ice cream cone) to lobby the legislators who appropriate their funds, this writer stumbled upon another story. The Public Employees' Retirement System of Mississippi now has contracts with all of the Jackson metro gyms to give their employees free memberships.
It’d be wishing to say it was pure skill to find this golden nugget in a stream of smooth rocks, but it was a happy accident, nothing more.
The Legislature really needs to scrutinize whether the state’s transparency website is really that or opaque. What value is transparency if the average person can’t find out how their tax dollars are being spent?
If the state can make it more user-friendly, we can continue to call it Transparency.ms.gov. Until that time, I’m labelling it Opaque.ms.gov in my favorites.
Steve Wilson is the investigative and political writer for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @gulfcoastsage