Public Policy Forum Blog

Transparency and Access to Information

Earlier this month, Good Jobs First, a non-partisan accountability firm that tracks public subsidies, published a report on city and county online disclosure practices. The report specifically focuses on public sector subsidies for economic development projects, such as low interest loans for businesses.

The report uses a previously-developed scoring system to rate the transparency of public subsidy programs based on their online presence. Scoring is based on the data available to the public, such as money being granted to private businesses for economic development purposes; promises of jobs; actual jobs created; wages/payroll; accessibility of data; and many more variables.

Unfortunately, the City of Milwaukee’s website was not included in this report; however, it did pique our curiosity regarding the information and transparency provided by the City for its use of tax increment financing (TIF). The City uses TIF to support development projects by providing funding upfront for land and infrastructure improvements needed to make development projects viable.

We visited the City’s TIF website and its counterpart website in Chicago as an admittedly unscientific means of gaining insight into this question. We found that although Chicago provides a much more streamlined approach to acquiring TIF data, it is lacking in details, whereas the opposite is the case for Milwaukee. The City of Milwaukee’s publicly available data infrastructure on its TIF projects website is rather archaic, yet rich in detail.

For example, Chicago’s data is in an interactive spreadsheet format, giving its City residents access to information on City-provided funding, total project costs, project location, and recipient of fund. Conversely, Milwaukee provides a list of PDFs that give details of project costs (line items), jobs projected, actual jobs created, and an explanation of the need.

Both sites appropriately strive to keep the public informed of City resources being used for development purposes. Milwaukee’s could benefit from the streamlined approach to accessible data used by the Chicago website, while Chicago’s site could benefit from including more details, such as jobs projected and actual jobs created.

Although the authors of the Good Jobs First report note that data on public investments in economic development projects are available through freedom of information requests, they stress that transparency is about having the information ready and available to inquiring residents. In today’s age, “soft” infrastructure, like Chicago’s easy-access TIF website, would play an important role in improving transparency for Milwaukee. It would lead to greater public understanding of municipal resources among residents. A well-informed population that knows how public resources are being used is the kind that helps its leaders make better decisions.

Ben Juarez