by Elizabeth Christopherson
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation
Can competition spur states to be more transparent, accountable, and beholden to the public trust? That’s one question the Center for Public Integrity set out to answer through its State Integrity Investigation, an ambitious effort to rank all fifty U.S. states in terms of their transparency and risk of corruption. The Rita Allen Foundation supported this important and innovative project, along with the Omidyar Network and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, as part of its work to explore new approaches to strengthening civic literacy and engagement in the United States.
For the latest edition of the State Integrity Investigation, published on November 9th, 2015, the Center for Public Integrity partnered with Global Integrity and 50 state-based reporters who examined 245 indicators of government accountability and transparency for each and every state. 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, including areas such as electoral oversight and pension fund management. The investigation revealed a profusion of loopholes and exemptions, as well as ethics commissions with inadequate resources for enforcement.
Of the 50 U.S. states, only three earned a D+ or better, and 11 states received failing grades. 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.
This is the second State Integrity Investigation undertaken by the Center—the first, released in 2012, was also supported by the Rita Allen Foundation, and led to or accelerated reform efforts in at least fourteen states by empowering advocates and reform-minded legislators to take action. Most states scored lower this time around, due in part to updates in the project’s research methodology, including a greater focus on issues of open data, as digital technology has raised standards for access to public records.
The impact from the second Investigation is still unfolding as the results reverberate on editorial pages and in statehouses around the country, but early results are promising. In its first few days, the Investigation had more than 700,000 page views, and users sent more than 6000 report cards by email to their local politicians, with an impressive 30 percent open rate. Partnership with USA Today and the wider Gannett group performed very strongly, with editorials based on the results appearing in outlets as diverse and widespread as The Seattle Times, The Detroit News, The Toledo Blade and The Des Moines Register. National outlets also covered the Investigation, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice, along with TV stations at the national and local levels.
As we continue to follow the coverage and ultimate results of this work, we have observed a few key lessons from this and the previous Investigation:
- The value of collaboration in journalism: In the current competitive media landscape, it’s important that journalism outlets, particularly nonprofits, find ways to pair their particular talents with those of others. The Investigation marries CPI’s strength in producing top-notch journalism with Global Integrity’s strong methodological rigor and rankings expertise, along with the reporters’ state-specific expertise and their media partners’ extensive reach. Increasingly, our Foundation values journalistic collaboration over single-outlet projects. Partnerships like the State Integrity Investigation can help the philanthropic sector make productive use of scarce resources.
- The potential of innovative forms of journalism: This project leverages two innovative journalistic approaches, data journalism and rankings, in order to make concrete the amorphous topic of corruption in statehouses. By marrying these techniques, the Investigation enables reporters and advocates to assess systematically a problem that often only comes to the surface through occasional scandals and one-off investigative reporting. Nonprofit journalism outlets can take advantage of these and other innovative techniques in order to shed new light on particularly vexing social problems, and funders can empower these outlets to experiment by supporting innovative practices.
- The importance of good storytelling: The Investigation further demonstrates a core conviction: while data journalism and other new techniques provide significant opportunity, compelling storytelling is the secret sauce that allows emerging journalistic practices to have outsize impact. The 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. At the end of the day, innovative journalism, and our support of it, needs to be grounded in the classic job of telling good stories.
Like the first State Integrity Investigation, we expect that the hard work done during 2015 will continue to pay dividends in the weeks, months and years to come, and we look forward to following the project’s impact as it unfolds.