Collecting data for a research project on Missouri city budgets—known for now as the “government checkbook project”—I have found inconsistencies across the state regarding how easy it is to get information about how different Missouri cities spend local tax dollars.

Kansas City and Saint Louis, for example, upload full spreadsheets of city expenditures on their websites for anyone to download at no charge. For many other cities, getting data was as easy as sending an email request and, occasionally, paying a small service fee.

On the other hand, some local governments ignored my request entirely or said their software does not have this reporting capability, as was the case with Independence. At the far end of the spectrum, a Jefferson City employee said the process would take about 40 hours and would cost $936.

The goal of the government checkbook project is to allow all Missouri residents the same level of access to information that those living in places like Kansas City and Saint Louis currently enjoy.

As it now stands, public records on city expenditures are not always kept in a way that can be shared easily. Though Missouri’s sunshine law requires state and local governments to disclose their documents upon request, it does not prevent these governments from charging fees, nor does it obligate them to generate new documents. As a result, what might seem like a simple request can result in fees of thousands of dollars when the data are not user-friendly, as analysts working on previous Show-Me Institute projects have discovered.

Is there any reason why a digital-age society that values government transparency and accountability should not make public information easily available?