Follow the Money: Financial Transparency Trifecta
Taxpayers want – and deserve – specifics on why their dollars get spent, how much gets paid, and who cashes governments’ checks. Opening governments’ financial datasets offers crucial accountability, performance, and citizen engagement opportunities, as well as challenges around data privacy.
The Socrata Customer Summit brings together a trio of financial transparency trailblazers to address those topics. Ari Hoffnung, now a Senior Adviser with Socrata, spearheaded Checkbook NYC while NYC deputy controller. He facilitates a discussion with Victoria Lewis, project manager for dataMontgomery of Montgomery County, Maryland, and Chris Dwelley, performance manager with Boston About Results.
Apps Level the Playing Field
Hoffnung starts off by highlighting three top issues in creating financial transparency: the frequency of publication, the level of detail, and the need to keep some financial data private. Every government aiming for financial transparency tackles these topics, he notes, from the framers of the U.S. Constitution, to Hoffnung and his Checkbook NYC team, to Socrata customers of any size or jurisdiction.
Checkbook NYC cost $3 million to build, Hoffnung remarks. Now, he enthuses, financial transparency apps, “essentially leverage the same technology at a fraction of a fraction of the cost.” He points out how small towns now have access to the same government transparency technology as the world’s most populous cities.
Platform Design: By the People, For the People
Next, Victoria Lewis talks about the innovative design partnership between Socrata and Montgomery County. She explains how in 2012, a county councilmember asked internally if Montgomery County could produce a portal similar to Checkbook NYC. “The first reaction I think was apprehension,” Lewis recalls, due to the breadth and depth of information on Checkbook NYC. Lewis met with key county departments to compile a requirements wish list; then they turned to Socrata.
Socrata, says Lewis, proposed collaboration: “If you’re willing to help us guide the direction of these tools, we are willing to commit our resources to create something even better.” Socrata devoted development expertise and an understanding of the open data platform; Montgomery County committed its top functional professionals to explain the budgeting and expenditure operations of a real county environment.
Behind the partnership was a transparency panel, including county staff as well as representatives of advocacy organizations, the public, and the tech community. People came with questions they wanted answered, from the status of neighborhood library construction to details on government contracts. “We realized that was taking the form of three separate sites – budget, spending, and a deep dive into our contracts information,” Lewis explains. The panel also resulted in user personas the partnership used to guide platform development.
“It wasn’t just us building in the bubble with Socrata,” Lewis continues. “It was the two of us plus representation from all these different user personas that we felt extended not just to Montgomery County, but different governments all over the country. “
Boston Makes the Grade
Next, Hoffnung mentions the 2013 U.S. Pirg ranking of major cities on financial transparency, and asks Chris Dwelley of Boston About Results how the report affected Beantown. Dwelley explains how a few years prior, Boston had acquired Socrata’s open data platform and quickly began publishing crime information, 311 data, and other frequently requested datasets. City officials smelled success: “This open data is easy, we published some good datasets, people are using it, everybody’s happy,” Dwelley says. Then came the U.S. Pirg report on financial transparency, with a D-minus for Boston. “It was an eye opener for us, our CFO was mortified, she said she’d never received a D in her entire life.”
“The first thought was, ‘let’s put our expenditure data up, let’s put our budget data up,’” explains Dwelley. But the government wanted to do more, and looked at NYC as well as other Massachusetts cities for ideas. Boston wanted to leverage transparency apps to share the stories, “of where the money’s coming from, where the money’s going,” says Dwelley. The city shopped around, and settled on Socrata’s Open Expenditures application.
Dwelley says the progress has been well received by both internal and external stakeholders. It’s also started momentum: Boston has released Open Budget Boston, and “is looking to do much more around contracting and procurement information,” states Dwelley. Reflecting again on the U.S. Pirg report, he adds, “Public interest groups do have power,” to influence not only whether governments release financial data, but also, “how they convey it to show the citizenry what they’re receiving for their tax dollars.”