Q&A with Financial Transparency Trailblazers
According to Ari Hoffnung, moderator of the Financial Transparency Trailblazers panel at today’s Socrata Customer Summit and father of Checkbook NYC, financial transparency starts with Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution. He opened the panel by talking about how the financial transparency issues America’s founding fathers wrestled with in 1787, are not so dissimilar from those governments face now: frequency of publishing data; the level of detail which should be offered; and privacy.
To get at solutions for these long standing financial transparency challenges, Hoffnang led a Q&A session with Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery Project Manager for Montgomery County, Maryland and Christopher Dwelley, Citywide Performance Manager for the City of Boston.
How did Montgomery County decide it needed financial transparency apps? And how has its partnership with Socrata to build a suite of financial transparency apps worked for Montgomery County?
In 2012, a Montgomery County Councilmember asked if the county could build something like Checkbook NYC. We weren’t sure off the bat, so I met with departments that have budget data and came up with a list of requirements we would need to show our financial data. AT the time, we wanted to add about 50 reqs to what was then being offered by Socrata.
So instead of tacking all those additional needs into their existing software, they said let’s form a partnership where Socrata commits all the necessary development resources and the country brings its functional knowledge to the table. That let Montgomery County describe what real budget operations and spending are like, which in turn formed the vision of what this product would look like.
The county then put together a financial transparency panel, which included external stakeholders from the community. That was really illuminating. We were surprised that the community didn’t just want general expenditure data, but they had specific questions. For instance, “How is this library funding being spent in my neighborhood?” or “Who are the vendors Montgomery Country is doing business with?” Those community conversations led us to identify the need for three sites: budget, spending and a contract deep dive. From there, we went through an iterative process to set data set schema, which hopefully other governments can use going forward.
How did US PIRG’s 2012 report on financial transparency impact what Boston was doing?
A few years ago, Boston started to delve into open data and publishing government information and in doing so, we acquired Socrata’s open data platform. Relatively quickly, we published really popular data sets like 911, 311, crime information. Those data were being used and we thought “everything is great and people are happy.”
Shortly thereafter, US PIRG ranked the 50 most populous cities and their efforts around financial transparency and Boston got a D-. Our CFO was mortified, saying she’d never received a D before. At the time, we were only publishing a few data sets relating to finance. So the first thing was to put budget and expenditure data up, but we wanted to do more.
After looking at other communities, we saw these financial transparency apps that told a story of how money is being used by government, which seemed more useful than tabular data. That’s when Boston moved to get Socrata’s financial transparency apps, which have been well received by internal and external stakeholders, alike. In fact, we are now looking to release contracting and procurement information down the road.
It just goes to show that public interests groups definitely have power to influence how governments not just release data, but how they convey it.
Why do we need financial transparency apps?
The big thing I always think about is that we need to tell a story about what governments are delivering. How helpful is it to throw a data set up and assume an everyday user can make sense of it in a tabular form or worse as a budget document? It’s not that useful for most people. So, a better way to communicate our financial story is with financial transparency apps.
Why did you choose to work with Socrata on these apps instead of developing them in house or with another vendor?
Montgomery County looked at three different options, because, as I said, at the time, there wasn’t an ideal product out there. One tool was open source, but we didn’t know the language. Another put too much weight on an already bogged down resource tool. The partnership with Socrata was ideal because it worked with our existing open data tools. That means, as long as we kept the data up to date, this solution would work best for our constituents.
It’s largely the same for Boston. Socrata’s solutions fit within our existing business solutions, where that isn’t the case for an open source solution.
How do you deal with privacy when it comes to financial transparency?
We started by meeting with our Finance Department and they completely embraced the concept, they understood we weren’t doing enough for the public to understand our spending. But, we did have to consider confidential information, so Finance we out and met with other agencies to figure out how to handle HIPPA and other public safety risks that would be best understood on the agency level.
The Finance Department confirmed what data had to be cleaned for legal reasons. From that, we created a process of annual certification, where agencies review their spending data to make sure it is protected, especially in light of policy changes or other factors.
We don’t want to release any private information. We had a similar process as MoCo, meeting with attorneys and going department-by-department to find out why people were uncomfortable publishing data and what their concerns were.
Did you have people, internally, trying to stop financial transparency?
We really didn’t. There was departmental apprehension to make sure we were going through the right processes, but that’s it. In fact, not only were there not obstacles, but we got a lot of support from our County Executive, data owners, and department heads.
Everybody saw the benefit and said financial transparency made sense. Of course, people had privacy concerns, but once we worked past those, people wanted to make financial transparency for Boston happen.
Who’s using these financial transparency apps? Is it internal users or taxpayers and advocates?
We see internal and external stakeholders using these apps. External folks from the media, for instance, are using graphics and our data in articles. Plus, academic folks are definitely using it. We had assumed departments are using this data, but the apps are really helping meet departments’ business needs like auditing and budgeting for the city.
Montgomery County employees are using these apps. It is much easier for everyone than looking at straight budget data or thumbing through a book. On the spending side, we see some internal traffic, especially between departments trying to determine what others are spending on like items. But advocacy groups are really using these to find misused or duplicated funds or other opportunities to save money.
Does this really save taxpayer money?
I think so. As an example, Boston gets a lot of FOIA requests which go through only one person. Since deploying our financial transparency apps, we are able to refer requester to the apps. So we are saving money by saving time for taxpayers. That city employee can now be doing something other than tracking down data sets.
We kept a lot of our FOIA requests in mind when we developed these app. We’re also keeping track of requests going forward, so that we can always be delivering what people are looking for. On top of that, we have these external groups looking at how the county can be better spending money.
But really, money isn’t the way to value financial transparency. It’s only a narrow group of people who can engage in a budget conversation. The apps let us broaden that conversation.