Financial Transparency for Governments of All Sizes

March 23, 2015 10:00 am PST | Public Finance

All governmental bodies – whether they have operating budgets is in the billions or the millions – can and should be financially transparent. It doesn’t take a big budget, dense population, or big influx of tax revenue to benefit from financial transparency. That’s because regardless of the size of a government, financial transparency offers important benefits to the public: it’s a way to inform citizens how money is spent, alleviate potential concerns about waste or fraud, and increase the overall engagement with the government.

For taxpayers, the amount of money at stake may feel less important than the knowledge of exactly where resources are directed. As Ari Hoffnung, the former deputy comptroller of New York City, comments, “Whether you’re a mayor in a village of three thousand people or the mayor of New York City, people want to know how you’re spending the resources.”

Hoffnung’s take is backed up by a survey done a few years back by the Association of Governmental Accountants, which found that a majority – 85 percent – of respondents felt it was a must for all levels of the government to provide financial transparency. And now, an increasingly tech savvy public, accustomed to easily accessible data, has even more reasons to expect financial transparency from the government.

Early in the evolution of financial transparency, it may have seemed unimaginable that small counties and cities would be able to achieve financial transparency at the same level as a state or major city. From staff resources to website-related investment, financial transparency was a time-, work-, and financial-intensive project. Take Hoffnung’s experience launching Checkbook NYC: the site cost millions of dollars to build, and took years to develop into its current format. “We weren’t faced with your classic build or buy decision,” recalls Hoffnung, “because the technology simply didn’t exist at that point.”

Since 2010, when Checkbook NYC launched, the available technologies and services have advanced a ton. Now, financial transparency isn’t just for New York, and other big city governments with hefty budgets and tons of taxpayers: governments of all sizes can easily put budget and other financial information online, in a user-friendly, searchable way. That’s something every citizen deserves, wherever they choose to make their home. As Hoffnung puts it, “Whether we’re talking about a school board that presides over an educational system with five hundred students or about the nation’s largest city with a $70 billion budget, they all need and benefit from financial transparency.”

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