Financial Transparency Checklist — 10 Steps to Get It Right!

August 24, 2015 7:00 am PST | Public Finance

Making open and transparent financial information widely available provides a holistic view of government spending and leads to a better-informed and more engaged community. The following 10 steps will help ensure a successful initiative for any size of government.

1. Get the right people on board early

It’s fine to start small, but you will need to have a champion and the appropriate executive backing to ensure the success of any new financial transparency initiative.

  • Define who in the organization is impacted, and gather feedback and buy-in
  • Identify an owner who can marshal the resources and gain consensus
  • Understand the needs of all stakeholders to define the scope of work
  • Find the owners for each type of data

2. Capitalize on what you’re already doing

Nearly every public agency is already doing something to make its finances available.

  • Start with existing reports, whether it’s posted budget books or public records requests
  • Look at your most common public or media requests and prioritize the most frequent datasets
  • Look at the static reports that are already published online — especially the budget and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) — and see how that data can be made more accessible

3. Define the process

  • List which information needs to be shared, where it is, and how best to make it available
  • Document the process for collecting data
  • Establish how to populate the data that will be shared publicly
  • Set a protocol and schedule for how data will be updated and maintained over time

4. Select the right technology

  • Start small and keep it simple
  • Select easy-to-use technologies that are hosted in the cloud and delivered online through your own website
  • Your only requirements are to supply the raw data and someone to manage how and when it’s published
  • Use technology that doesn’t require additional hardware, can scale to keep pace and grow with your organization’s data transparency needs, and makes it possible to publish once and connect to your data sources in real time

Learn more about Socrata’s Financial Transparency Suite.

5. Provide raw data files, rather than static PDFs or spreadsheets

Not too long ago, posting static documents online was considered a best practice for open and transparent governance. As citizen behaviors and expectations have evolved, that standard has changed. In a truly open experience, individuals can access the data online, and drill down into details that may not be readily apparent in a traditionally formatted presentation of the data. Relationships between various aspects of the data can be discovered, trends can be recognized, and new uses for that data can grow and evolve, driven by the innovation and curiosity of citizens and public officials.

6. Tackle the low-hanging fruit — open your budget

Some people looking for budget data may just want to understand what is being budgeted for a specific line item, others may want to get a sense of trends over time, while developers may need all of the raw data from a specific time period or classification to drive a new app that they are developing.

7. Protect personal privacy

In your data, there may be some information that should be shielded to preserve employee or citizen privacy. In general, it’s better to show private transactions with all their details hidden — that way, the totals you present are still accurate, but private information is protected and preserved. Some of the common data that should be marked private includes:

  • Payments to whistle-blowers
  • Payments to employees who are minors
  • Homeland Security payments
  • Taxpayer information, including tax reimbursements
  • Procurement details for security systems or police equipment

8. Move to expenditures and procurement information

Once you’ve unlocked your budget, the logical next step is to show transaction-level details about your actual spending. Some of the most common citizen questions revolve around a single vendor or contractor or a single project or spending category. By opening up your transactional ledger, you can demonstrate your commitment to transparency and give citizens an unprecedented level of access.

9. Open up payroll data

The number one citizen request for data of any kind is for details of their government’s payroll. By opening up payroll data, governments can tell their own story of their human investments, instead of letting the media or others do it for them. This data can also help inform Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) negotiations, improve cost projections, and help monitor bonuses and overtime.

10. Prepare a training video

Use video to demonstrate how easy it is to use the portal. See a great example from Topeka, Kansas.

Schedule a demo of Socrata’s Financial Transparency Suite to learn more. For more on the benefits of opening the books for governments of all sizes, download our free eBook, “Three Challenges That Governments Are Solving With Open Financial Data.”


Download the ebook.


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