UPDATED 3/14/12 9:45 a.m.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Hawaii is lagging behind most other states when it comes to transparency about government spending, according to a study published Wednesday.

The state was one of three that earned a “C” grade from the Boston-based consumer group U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. The ranking puts Hawaii in the bottom half of states when it comes to the fiscal information it puts online, with 28 other states ranking higher.

Hawaii’s place on the list indicates that the while the state government’s website has some useful functions, it lacks comprehensive details and other accessibility features that are the norm in other states.

“Transparent information is only as useful as it is easily accessible, which means easily searchable,” the study’s authors wrote. “Transparency websites in the leading states offer a range of search and sort functions that allow residents to navigate complex expenditure data with a single click of the mouse.”

Hawaii officials blamed financial constraints as an impediment to implementing new online features, according to the study. But U.S. PIRG argues states that invest in transparency improvements can save “significant” money in the long run by creating more efficient government administration and reducing the time spent on information requests. Civil Beat’s requests for public records have often stalled because Hawaii government agencies argue that fulfilling such requests will take too much time and money.

“Transparency websites also save millions by reducing the number of costly information requests from residents, watchdog groups, government bodies and companies,” according to U.S. PIRG. “The biggest savings may be the hardest to measure: the potential abuse or waste that is avoided because government officials, contractors and subsidy recipients know the public will be looking over their shoulder.”

Hawaii also earned a “C” in U.S. PIRG’s analysis last year, but the group says that it used stricter standards in 2012 so that states with the same — or even a worse — score may have made improvements since 2011.

UPDATE “The Abercrombie Administration is working towards making government more efficient and yes, more transparent, to better serve the public,” Spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz told Civil Beat in an email. “In working towards this goal, the Governor appointed a Chief Information Officer, Sonny Bhagowalia.”

Keeping Proper Records in the First Place

Only six states — not including Hawaii — post online copies of all contracts between vendors and the state. U.S. PIRG says that better transparency on public-private partnerships can “enhance public scrutiny in lieu of other standard public protections such as civil service, conflict-of-interest, and freedom of information rules.”

Here’s a screenshot of the “Open Checkbook” feature that’s on the Massachusetts state government website. U.S. PIRG cited it as one of the easy-to-use functions that other states should emulate.

Getting technology up to speed is one challenge that governments face, and figuring out what data to share is another. Many states including Hawaii have reported having difficulty figuring out how to protect confidential information while posting state spending information.

The study says governments should have systems for maintaining records that naturally lend themselves to disclosure. For example, keeping private information in fields that will not be disclosed to the public but posting all other state expenditure details online. U.S. PIRG says Hawaii should look to the states that have demonstrated the strongest ability to provide online information to citizens.

Seven of those states earned “A” grades for having user friendly sites that are easy for the average citizen to navigate. Those states were Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Arizona. At the other end of the spectrum, the five states that earned failing grades were Wyoming, Iowa, Arkansas, Montana and Idaho.

Check out the complete state-by-state breakdown of rankings from the study, then scroll down for a complete copy of the report:

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