Legislative Watchdog Holds Florida Programs Accountable

Four years ago, when John Turcotte landed his job as director of the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), he vowed to put together an "electronic encyclopedia" of information on state programs elected officials could use in decision-making.

Turcotte didn't let ruffled state inspectors general or other program skeptics deter him from delivering on that promise.

Turcotte and his staff two years later rolled out the Florida Government Accountability Report, which contains financial and program information on 400 state programs. Along with narratives, the index also contains rating information, which Turcotte compared to Standard&Poor's stock profiles.

"I don't know of any other program that is like this," he said. "We couldn't find a model when we set out to do this. One can easily find agency Web sites. But in audit operations, it is difficult to find anything beyond standard information about their agency reports or perhaps links to other agencies. The problem is our legislators and their staff or even reporters don't know what they are looking for."

FGAR, however, is comprehensive and more effective than randomly searching through government Web sites, said Turcotte, who walked through an average request: "Suppose you were a legislator and you wanted access to all state programs that had anything to do with fishing. Using FGAR, you would naturally get anything to do with the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission," he said, clicking through the search.

Beyond that, however, FGAR spit out a list of about 25 other profiles on the subject of fish. "Here we have something that doesn't seem to fit -- the Child Support Enforcement Program in the Department of Revenue. Now we ask ourselves, 'What in the world does that have to do with fishing?' We click here and we see that the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission is listed as a partner agency to child support, so that in cases where a person does not pay child support, the state can revoke his or her fishing license," Turcotte said.

Those connections are crucial to lawmakers. And although Turcotte's office can't determine how many hits FGAR gets -- state employees' firewall precludes that kind of counting -- he believes usage is high. In fact, anecdotal evidence suggests that Florida's new governor, Jeb Bush (R), and his staff used the system extensively in his transition.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of FGAR, however, is the matrix or rating system that accompanies each program profiled on the site. Because FGAR is maintained by a corps of analysts from Turcotte's government accountability office, analysts update and post complete program audits. Results from the performance audits have been spun into a rating tool.

Agencies at first balked at having these ratings posted so visibly, but OPPAGA has worked through the resistance. Like most auditing agencies, the office also discloses and solicits audit responses before making results public.

State agencies' inspectors general, a group in the business of holding managers accountable, also were initially nervous about FGAR. But once the IGs were convinced that Turcotte had the authority to build FGAR, many of the differences were worked through, he said.

For the full FGAR effect, turn your browsers to www.oppaga.state.fl.us/government.


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