The Hidden Costs of PDFs

August 10, 2015 7:00 am PST | Data as a Service, Public Finance

 This post was written by Kyle Hall, who joined Socrata after four years with Los Angeles, where he managed the City’s first financial transparency portal, ControlPanel LA, from its inception in 2013. 

Each government entity is unique in that the services it provides are uniquely tailored to the specific needs of its constituents. But when it comes to public administration, all governments face the same requirements and the same basic challenges. All agencies, for example, produce financial reports and compile significant amounts of data for later distribution and analysis.

Each year, public agencies collectively spend billions of dollars and millions of hours of staff time to produce tens of thousands of reports that all boil down to 500 pages of this:



This practice of producing a single  static and voluminous report per year, either printed as a book or released as a PDF, is standard operating procedure for governments across the United States and the world.

Static Reports Are Inefficient and Inconvenient

The idea that these reports could be produced more cheaply or easily is not new. What is rarely discussed, however, are the human costs of this dense and outdated means of presenting data to the public and to internal stakeholders.

The most frequent users and consumers of open government financial data are the analysts and policymakers of the agency that produced it. They are constantly tasked with examining data to find savings or efficiencies, looking at historical reports to update old findings, or examining policy initiatives to determine if they are an effective use of taxpayer funds.

Those analysts spend enormous amounts of their time submitting tickets to IT staff, trying to extract data from legacy systems, or shuffling through old budget books and financial reports to try and glean the insights they need to do their jobs. The collective time and expertise of their employees is the most important asset of any public agency — and that resource is not being put to its best use when analysts are spending so much of their time looking for information instead of producing findings and conclusions.

Similarly, citizens who are looking for answers about how their tax dollars are being spent have a series of unappealing options: searching government websites for the right PDF, picking up the phone and guessing the right agency to call, or submitting a freedom of information request —which may take weeks or months to process, and which is very costly for a government agency to respond to.

Opening the Books Empowers Citizens and Government Employees

It’s not hard to see how this current practice is an inefficient use of public resources, how it frustrates citizen engagement, and how it builds the perception that government is secretive or lacking transparency.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

By committing to a digital-first, transparent-by-default approach, public agencies can truly “open the books” to internal staff and external stakeholders. They can automate data flows from legacy financial systems into user-friendly dashboards, combine data from disparate spreadsheets or systems into more powerful unified reports, and give everyone — government employees and citizens alike — instant access to the data they need, right when they need it.

Governments like Davenport, Iowa, Kelso, Washington, and the state of Connecticut are already reaping the benefits of the opening up their books — what are you waiting for?

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