5 Reasons Citizens Want You to Invest in Financial Transparency

September 8, 2015 7:00 am PST | Public Finance

Think that financial transparency is just a nice-to-have option for your city, town, state, or county’s governmental website? Think again! With both their increased expectations in terms of available data, and their general attitude toward government, citizens are clamoring for a view into how their tax dollars are spent. Discover five big reasons citizens want you to invest in financial transparency.

1) Citizens are tech savvy: From detailed data usage breakdowns on cell phone bills to targeted recommendations during online shopping, citizens are used to high levels of online reporting and service from private companies. It’s no surprise that a similar level of service and information is expected from the government.

For Fred Diehl, the assistant to the town administrator of Erie, Colorado, it’s no secret that Erie’s citizens are young and tech savvy. The expectation is for information to be app-oriented and easy to understand for the phone-loving citizens. “As good as our website is,” Diehl said during a webinar with Socrata, “we needed to look at other ways to put government literally into the hands of our residents, and our staff, and our elected and appointed officials.”

2) Taxpayers want to know where their dollars are going: And they deserve to have full and complete knowledge of what happens after the checks are written to the IRS. In Erie, Diehl knew “the public doesn’t know what the general fund means.” Rather than grouping all spending done from the general fund into one graph, he cut the ambiguity, and “removed the cloak of secrecy” by instead providing a more meaningful and detailed breakdown of spending by department. 

For Ari Hoffnung, the former deputy comptroller of New York City, this is the type of transparency that’s vital to have in place to repair the relationship between the government and public. Hoffnung comments, “Governments that are serious about rebuilding trust with the public and dispelling myths about the magnitude of wasteful spending need to become financially transparent so that taxpayers know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent.”

3) Citizens are social. If the community is on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, it only makes sense for the government to be available on those social platforms. Financial transparency should be social, too. In Erie, with newly elected board members as well as a new mayor, social involvement has been key. Diehl comments that elected officials are offered “opportunities that include social media,” and that they may rely “heavily on a social engagement tool for several months or a quarter of the year” before switching to another.

4) Residents are advocates. Help them understand how you spend money. Ari Hoffnung points out “Advocates love transparency because it empowers them with information they need to make their case.” Without specific details on park spending, money invested into elder care, or whatever advocacy issues are of concern, advocates can only be opinionated. Access to spending and investments provides them with the data necessary for an informed advocacy.

5) Citizens are smart: With a backbone of information from financial facts, citizens can have a thoughtful, fact-based conversation about spending and investment. What typically happens during budget season is a debate that skews to two extremes: one group advocates for lower taxes, and another for higher investment. “Unfortunately,” says Hoffnung, “what’s usually absent from these conversations is an understanding of how government spends money.” Hoffnung believes that if financial transparency is available, “we could elevate the conversation….and empower taxpayers to have a real financial conversation.”

Interested in learning more about how financial transparency can aid your organization? Socrata’s new eBook, “Three Challenges That Governments Are Solving With Open Financial Data,” delves into the advantages of opening the books.

 

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