Guest Advice: Best Government Web Sites

Jennifer Wagner, author of a popular Indiana political blog, offers her tips for finding good information and data from state Web sites.

 

As a political insider who also writes a blog predominantly focused on state government, I spend a lot of time combing through and compiling data. I want to know where taxpayer money is going and how much is being spent.

From surplus property to state contracts and job layoffs, the state of Indiana provides a wealth of online information that ordinary citizens might not know is available at their fingertips. The list below includes links that I regularly visit to see what’s going on in state government.

Additionally, I frequently use federal government sites to track nationwide indicators such as job growth, personal income and unemployment. My job is to know not only what’s going on in Indiana, but also to find out how Indiana stacks up to other states.

I’ve also included a few links that don’t really relate to my daily doings: offender location sites; an archive that allows you to view prior versions of Internet sites; and a database of Capitol Hill salaries.

Beyond the information that’s available for free on the Internet, the federal court system’s PACER service is a fantastic resource that’s available for a minimal per-page fee. It’s cheaper and more accurate than (http://www.lexis.com) and in many cases, you can obtain an enormous amount of information about a case without ever having to visit a courthouse.

So, if you’re looking to find out more about how your dollars are being spent or what’s going on in politics, here’s hoping these links help get you started on your journey.

Current solicitations. Want to find out how the state plans on spending your taxpayer dollars? You can get a preview of coming attractions by monitoring requests for proposals and bids on the Department of Administration’s current solicitations site. Often, you can find out what state government intends to do before they release that information to the public.

State contracts. The Department of Administration used to provide a basic Excel spreadsheet of all state contracts, including information about amount, agency, term and vendor. The agency recently converted the stagnant list into a searchable database, which makes it much easier to find what you’re looking for. You can still export large searches into Excel to sort and analyze.

Layoffs or plant closings. Before these are announced, companies must file notices with the federal government. Those notices are posted here, sometimes days before the mainstream media pick up on them.

Surplus sales.  From land to cars to rocking chairs, find out what the State is selling and when from the Indiana State Surplus.

State finances. The Indiana Finance Authority, which technically owns most of state government, has been charged with closing a number of high-profile deals in the past two years, including the long-term lease of the Indiana Toll Road and the potential privatization of the Hoosier Lottery. Updates and requests for information frequently wind up posted on the Authority’s Web site without any public fanfare.

State audits. The State Board of Accounts recently began posting all of its audits here, and the agency has also been working on scanning and posting historical audits. Previously, citizens had to formally request paper copies of the documents.

Public notices. Whether you’re media or just a curious outsider, sign up for state government mailing lists for various state agencies.

Campaign finance. The Political Moneyline is the best go-to source for federal campaign disclosures and independent expenditures. This is a must-use for anyone covering politics, especially during a contentious election cycle.

Legislative pay. Find out who makes what on Capitol Hill at Legistorm.

Economics. Find federal, regional and state economic trends, including personal income growth, industry-related data and historical analyses at the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Information on this site largely comes out in quarterly installments.Labor stats. The Bureau of Labor Statistics allows you to generate monthly reports using raw data and state and federal economic indicators, including unemployment rates and job growth.

Old Internet pages. Though not technically a public records resource, the Internet Archive is a useful tool for finding things that no longer exist on the Internet. It allows you to search by Internet address and retrieve past versions of Web sites.

State and Local Offender Tracking. Search for state inmates, Marion County inmates and state sex offender information.

Jennifer Wagner is communications director for the Indiana Democratic Party.