The Public Authorities Transparency Charade


Climbing a Pile of FilesIs this transparency? It’s 2014, and there are 13,000 pages of MTA and 2,300 pages of NY Power Authority procurement reports published online as PDF format images; these reports cannot be searched by a computer, cannot be viewed in a spreadsheet or database,and cannot be Googled. The procurement reports detail the tens of billions of dollars that state authorities pay to businesses. Yet looking through just the MTA’s procurements records on a computer screen is like going through a stack of papers five feet three inches tall.

If these procurement records were machine-readable, they could be analyzed and combined with lobbying and campaign contribution records to shine some sunshine on potential conflicts of interest and pay-to-play risks.

Can the MTA, the Comptroller’s Office, or the Authorities Budget Office say with a straight face that anyone is going to peruse 13,000 pages of MTA procurement reports one by one, screen by screen, to find a handful that are of interest? Really? Who?

It’s a disturbing transparency charade, and every branch of New York’s government needs to do better. The authorities already keep their procurement information in searchable databases. It is very inexpensive to put that same information online in common formats that the public – or other branches of government – can search and use with a computer, instead of exporting this information as useless 13,000-page PDFs.

The authorities should post their procurement data on their own websites as downloadable, machine-readable files. The state comptroller should take data reported by authorities to PARIS, the public authorities reporting database, and publish it online in a downloadable, machine-readable format.  The legislature should mandate that all PARIS data be machine readable and downloadable.

The legislature intends to make “technical improvements” to the Public Authorities Reporting Act with a new bill, A03630/S04075. But that bill does not require machine-readable reporting, and may actually make things worse by reducing the information that must be regularly updated and sent to the ABO and Comptroller. We honestly do not know if New York State is putting this data online in a near useless form out of apathy, incompetence, or because too many interests have something to hide. But given the state’s dreadful history of corruption and legalized bribery, you’d think the governor and comptroller would be pushing the authorities – which the governor controls, and which report to the comptroller – to be transparent about how who they are giving money and subsidies to.