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New Report Grades State Governments on Ethics and Transparency

The results are in: Of the 50 U.S. states, only three earned a D+ or better, and 11 states received failing grades. The scores were released on November 9 by the Center for Public Integrity’s State Integrity Investigation. This comprehensive assessment involved research by 50 state-based reporters who examined 245 indicators of government accountability and transparency for each and every state. The investigation was conducted in partnership with Global Integrity and was supported in part by the Rita Allen Foundation.

States were graded on both the existence and the implementation of ethics laws—for example, restrictions on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers—and on the accessibility of government records. The indicators addressed 13 categories of integrity overall, ranging from electoral oversight to pension fund management. The investigation revealed a profusion of loopholes and exemptions, as well as ethics commissions with inadequate resources for enforcement.

This is the second State Integrity Investigation undertaken by the Center—the first, released in 2012, was also supported by the Rita Allen Foundation. Most states scored lower this time around, due in part to updates in the project’s research methodology. In particular, the latest assessment had a greater focus on issues of open data, as digital technology has raised standards for access to public records.

The project did uncover a few bright spots. Idaho earned an A for its open budget process, while New York received a B+ for its rigorous auditing system. Georgia and Virginia have implemented effective limits on lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. Virginia now ranks 16th in the nation for overall integrity; its 47th-place ranking in 2012 garnered media attention and spurred significant reforms. And Iowa earned a top score of C- for access to public information, with the governor citing the state’s failing 2012 grade in this category as an impetus for change.

The State Integrity Investigation’s interactive graphics were selected as“Infographic of the Day” on November 12 by Fast Company’s Co.Design, in a piece that praised the report for laying out “this immense amount of data in a way that’s comprehensive, easy to understand, and pretty fun to use.” In the Nonprofit Quarterly, the late Rick Cohen explored the implications of state integrity policies for nonprofit work, with special attention to Michigan, which received the lowest ranking of any state, in light of the recent use of emergency financial managers for the city of Detroit.

“The report’s take-away is that state officials still love operating with minimal scrutiny and public access,” The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote in acommentary on the investigation. “It will take sustained pressure to nudge most of them into the 21st century.”

The Rita Allen Foundation supported State Integrity 2015 in partnership with theOmidyar Network and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation as part of its work to strengthen civic literacy and engagement in the United States.