New Apps Bring Financial Transparency to Governments and Citizens

April 2, 2014 4:30 am PDT | Data Apps & Visualization, Open Data
Socrata Open Budget

By Safouen Rabah, Vice President of Product

 

Five years ago, any government who made the choice to join the open data movement was seen as innovative. Now, publishing data is the gold standard of open government, but it must be more than a line item government leaders cross off their transparency checklist. While publishing data publicly is a great start to making the most of the data collected, it’s also just the first step. In order for open data programs to have significant impact, the smartest governments publish raw data and provide ways citizens need to understand and use that data. This includes visualization tools, APIs to remix and reuse data in multiple contexts, and citizen-friendly apps to engage people in government processes.

Why Financial Transparency Matters

Financial transparency apps demystify government finances and expand the conversation around budgets and spending. These apps bolster public participation in governance. Government cannot call itself transparent just because it published a ledger of raw data, as few citizens understand how to consume financial data. Furthermore, many citizens are hungry to understand this data. Financial transparency demonstrates serious commitment to open government. A citizen armed with information about the budget is a citizen able to ask the right questions and understand her government’s priorities.

In evaluating the apps that already exist for government finances, our team found none that truly helped people understand how budgets and spending work. We realized that most apps were not built for everyday citizens to use.To help government meet the needs and demands of its citizens, we set out to build a suite of financial transparency apps that examine government finances from the citizen perspective. We created two specific apps to address financial transparency. The first, Socrata Open Budget™, allows citizens to understand everything that goes into a government’s budget. The second, Socrata Open Expenditures™, shows citizens how the government is spending funds.

Socrata Open Budget

Socrata Open Budget helps citizens and other stakeholders understand the operating budget, capital budget, capital projects, and the priorities of government. For example, a citizen curious about public safety budgeting can drill down into the funds allocated for Police, Fire, and Rescue and, from there, get specifics on the source of those funds. The app allows users to follow the lifecycle of the budgeting process. Budgeting is a multi-phase process that can be confusing to the average citizen. Socrata Open Budget provides a snapshot of the budget, where it’s been, and what’s happening next. How does this level of budget transparency benefit citizens? A citizen armed with information about the budget is a citizen able to ask the right questions and understand the priorities of government. Engaged citizens, journalists, and other stakeholders demand this data.

When designing these financial transparency tools, Socrata worked closely with the technology and finance teams at Montgomery County, Maryland to learn about government budget and spending data practices. Socrata and Montgomery County also obtained feedback from members of the County’s local community to ensure their objective of empowering the public with financial data was met.

“We worked with Socrata to make sure we could educate citizens about how we budget and spend as we empower them with data. The apps are designed to move visitors through the entire budgeting process in an engaging way. All of the data is shown in dynamic charts and made interactive. It flows in a way that makes very complex information easy to understand,” says dataMontgomery Project Manager Victoria Lewis.

Socrata Open Expenditures

Government spending is another area that can be confusing to citizens. Because citizens care about where their money is spent, conversations around government spending can be volatile, especially when spending is unclear. Smart governments committed to serving citizens have a strong incentive to help taxpayers understand spending. Governments also have an opportunity to help sophisticated data consumers, such as journalists and business owners, understand the data. Socrata Open Expenditures helps fulfill this mission by presenting spending data in a detailed, understandable way.

With Socrata Open Expenditures, citizens can explore government spending to where funds are allocated. For example, a user can view the relative amount spent on park maintenance, public art, school buses, and more. Citizens can also explore trends in spending over time, browse the data by government vendor to see which companies are hired by their government (for example, if their city hires the same firm for both road construction and maintenance), and browse the spending by specific payment to see the details around payments to vendors. This app also benefits businesses by offering insight into how their competitors are serving the government. Ultimately, this app recognizes that citizens have the right to see how the government spends their money in a format they can understand, regardless of financial expertise.

Learn More: Watch Our Webinar

Socrata’s suite of financial transparency apps expand the conversation around budgets and spending, and will bolster public participation in governance. These apps are designed to be meaningful to all audiences, ensuring all stakeholders will be able to understand where the money comes from, how it is allocated, and where it’s going. Making these apps available to citizens demonstrates a government’s commitment to transparency and openness.

To learn more, watch our webinar, during which we demonstrated each of these apps.

 

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