If you were to look back several decades for the public institution in Michigan most shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation by reason of corruption and incompetence, it’s hard to imagine you would find one more qualified than the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).
Traditional annual audits (1) were not, aren’t and never will be comprehensible by the public and (2) obviously didn’t reveal, stop or even slow down the laundry list of crimes and mismanagement at DWSD. And anyone who thinks those problems are completely over at DWSD has his or her head in the sand.
But now we have available a revolutionary system for transparency, and it can be had at a discounted price. I’m convinced that the shortest, most effective route to transparency at DWSD is through the application of Checkbook 2.0, the brainchild of John Liu, New York City’s comptroller. Checkbook 2.0 is a readily adaptable accounting system in which an institution’s financial transactions are disclosed on a public website as they happen.
Checkbook 2.0 vacuums up, correlates and displays an institution’s revenues, expenses, budgets, payroll, projects, contracts, subcontracts and such.
The next most effective safeguard of the public interest in lieu of traditional audits, I suppose, would be annual forensic audits (which would be a lot more expensive and much less effective).
A third alternative might be annual petitions for accounting in a suburban circuit court (which would probably be even more expensive and less effective).
Karl Fogel of Open Tech Strategies, LLC wrote, “...the release of the Checkbook NYC code...is significant because of a larger initiative that accompanies it. Long before the code release, the Comptroller's Office started a serious planning process to ensure that the code could be easily adopted by other municipalities, supported by other vendors, and eventually become a long-term multi-stakeholder project...”
Rebecca Williams of the Sunlight Foundation reported, “...[T]his might be the first instance of city officials proactively and premeditatively building civic applications with the intent of having other cities -- and cities with varied software vendors at that -- use and contribute to making that software better.”
There will be a few public officials who howl in objection to the Checkbook 2.0 concept before exploring its possibilities. But there will be many others willing to consider a new way to deal with an old problem. Let's work to generate strong public support for such an initiative.