Financial Transparency Trifecta: Q&A

May 28, 2015 9:15 am PST | Effective Governing

The Socrata Customer Summit brings together three of the nation’s champions of financial transparency. Ari Hoffnung, former NYC deputy controller and now a Senior Adviser with Socrata, delves into transparency strategies with Victoria Lewis, project manager for dataMontgomery of Montgomery County, Maryland, and Chris Dwelley, performance manager with Boston About Results.

Financial Transparency 101

Hoffnung begins with the basics: “Why do we really need financial transparency apps – why invest in them?” Dwelley explains the dynamic nature of citizen engagement when governments use transparency apps to tell rich, easily understood stories about what agencies are delivering – instead of publishing mind-numbing tabular datasets or volumes of dry budget documents.

Then Hoffnung asks what led Montgomery County and Boston to partnering with Socrata, instead of developing apps in-house or with another vendor. “We were considering three different options,” Lewis responds. One open source option would have required a high level of maintenance; an in-house option would have drained a resource that was already burdened. “The development partnership was really an ideal situation for us, where we could get exactly what we wanted in an open data platform,” she explains. Dwelley adds, “One of the things we really liked about Socrata’s offerings was the flexibility,” and “with our staffing capacity it made sense to go with an already packaged solution.”

Tackling Privacy Hurdles

Data protection and privacy pose serious challenges in financial transparency. Hoffnung asks for a recap of Montgomery County and Boston’s strategies. Lewis explains how she met with Montgomery County’s finance department, “and they completely embraced a concept like this.” The existing dataset in dataMontgomery didn’t fully enable the public to understand county spending, but obstacles around confidential and sensitive data had caused apprehension in the county. Agency professionals started meeting, “to identify large chunks and swaths of data with different considerations,” including privacy issues and any public safety risks. County departments went through iterative reviews to confirm what needed to be encrypted or removed. “That’s an ongoing process now,” Lewis comments.

Hoffnung continues, “How much time did you and your staff spend with attorneys, going department to department and dealing with these issues?” Lewis remarks, “That was a long and rough road,” noting the need to involve every attorney from every department, as well as the need to educate legal staff about the nature of the financial data. Building systems around extraction and encryption became key, “so that we could make sure that we are putting in every action possible to make sure that we’re not releasing something that shouldn’t be released,” Lewis comments.

Building Internal Momentum

Hoffnung then wants to know, “Were there individuals or departments who were trying to stop this financial transparency train from proceeding?” Lewis says no. “Not only did I feel that wasn’t happening,” she states, “We got a lot of support from our management, from the IT department, the county executive department, and the individual data owners.” Lewis notes, “Our open data act asked for us to inventory all of our available datasets,” and the county’s initial spending and budget datasets complied with the legislation. “But the thing is, nobody was looking at them,” she recalls. Internal momentum built, and, “departments really embraced it and went with it.”

Boston’s experience mirrored Montgomery County’s, Dwelley says, with the city encountering, “No opposition at all, which was really fantastic; everybody saw the benefit and went with it.” He points out the major concern was privacy, and the need to have processes and reviews in place to manage data protection effectively.

Financial Transparency: A Huge Step Forward

Hoffnung closes with a graph showing the steady decline since 1960 in the public’s trust of government, and a rundown of major challenges facing the world. “Complex problems require collective action; and collective action requires a healthy and strong government,” he asserts. “If we want to rebuild our democracy, we need to rebuild this trust between the government and the public.” Hoffnung believes, “Open data and financial transparency alone will not solve all these problems, but they’re a huge step in the right direction.”


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