Design Partners: How Montgomery County Shaped New Financial Transparency Apps

August 6, 2014 11:00 am PST | Effective Governing

Over the past week Socrata and a handful of early adopter customers celebrated the launch of Socrata’s suite of financial transparency apps, including Open Budget and Open Expenditures. These two apps provide the kind of modern, consumer-style web experience that’s seldom seen on government websites. These apps put into action the idea of making data open and useful to people and to demystify something as arcane as government budgets to everyday citizens. The feedback has been resounding: it is about time.

Not only are taxpayers able to understand the flow of money in their city, or county, often for the first time, but employees in government are using the same apps to answer their questions about budgeting and spending across other programs and departments, without calling anyone in Finance, or OMB.


So, how did we get there? That’s the really cool story I wanted to blog about.

To develop these two apps, Socrata joined forces with Montgomery County in a novel arrangement we call a “Design Partnership.” The team at Montgomery County are some of the strongest advocates in open data, and the County is a nationally-recognized innovator in the use of technology to improve outcomes, for quite some time, so the partnership came naturally. The partnership is made up as follows:

  • Socrata engineers, product managers, and the UX team does what they do best, which is design and build software that brings data to life
  • The Montgomery County team at Finance, OMB, and the open data program office provides the domain expertise and frequent open access not only to the functional leaders in the County, but also to the constituents they serve.

Unlike old ways of doing things, the County didn’t come to Socrata with a bunch of requirements and specifications. They came to us with an idea and a challenge, asking, “What can we do to take open data to the next level when it comes to financial data?” The Socrata team started with a blank slate.

Here is the kicker: it didn’t cost Montgomery County anything to build the app. They contributed ideas, expertise, and access, and we at Socrata invested engineering and design resources to build a product. This was not a custom project. Instead, we expressly designed a market-driven product that can be used by not only Montgomery County, but also  every city, county and state.  Pretty cool!

This approach eliminates risk for the customer – by definition there is no such thing as failed IT investment in this model. Our approach keeps costs down for every other subsequent customer. Governments get a world-class app, as a turnkey cloud service, for a fraction of the cost of the old model where each customer pays for for custom development, maintenance, and IT infrastructure.

Even when governments build apps and contribute the code as open source – which is a marked improvement over the old ways – there is still the question of how to adapt that code, how to maintain it, and how to run it. When you add all of those up, even huge contributions like Checkbook NYC become cost prohibitive for most organizations that do not have New York City’s scale. After 20 years in the software business, and given the scale economies of the cloud, I’m also convinced that big IT software development projects make less and less sense.

I see this design partnership as a much needed refinement on the shared services model because it eliminates the headaches of coordination and bureaucracy inherent in the model, not to mention the upfront risk. Maybe we can call this “a market driven shared services model,” by which I mean this kind of collaboration, for the benefit of the wider market, is really only possible in the public sector, where the “market” are not competitors, but collaborators. From a behavioral economics perspective, this act on the part of the design partners, to share their time and expertise with us, so that we may magnify that expertise through our capacity to reach a broader market, is rational because it serves to cement the design partner’s view of a space as more prominent than it might be otherwise. And, as governments exist in a vertically and horizontally connected influence and dependency matrix, the design partner’s missions, in so far as they are reflected in their input to the apps design process, is furthered.

Thank you, Montgomery County, for two wonderful apps many of your peers are already using, and thanks for challenging the innovation status quo.

In a future post, I will talk about the design process and why it, too, was a huge departure over the old way of doing things.

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