Reimagining Financial Transparency: Erie, Colorado

February 12, 2015 1:37 pm PST | Data as a Service

When an election brought about sweeping change to the town of Erie, Colorado, the administration took it all in stride and stayed one step ahead of the game. With newly elected officials promising transparency in government, the administration took the opportunity to implement Socrata’s Open Budget application and make that promise a reality.

New trustees mean a new approach

In April 2014, five of the seven seats of the Board of Trustees of Erie, Colorado, were filled by newly elected officials. The Board of Trustees serves as the legislative and governing body of the town. In their campaigns, each of the candidates promised to make local government more transparent.

Meanwhile, a new website was already under construction, and Erie’s administrative arm saw a chance to build transparency into the new site from the very beginning, rather than play catch up after the fact. In this way, they were able to support the new board from the start and prevent website revisions later.

Not only did they make transparency part of the Erie’s new website, they made it a prominent feature, with a big half circle green button in the upper right hand corner labeled simply “Transparency.”

When citizens can access data, they can be engaged

The town of Erie is a bedroom community of Denver, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds. The current population of 22,000 residents is expected to jump to 40,000 in the near future. These residents tend to be young, affluent, well-educated, and tech-savvy enough to seek greater insight into Erie’s finances.

Although the residents weren’t complaining about a lack of access to information, the town wanted to paint a picture and tell the story of Erie’s vision using the budget data as a tool. The citizens weren’t engaging with leaders, nor were they asking questions or pushing back on decisions because they didn’t have access to the right information. Using Open Budget to make the financial information accessible enabled the town to remove the perceived cloak of secrecy, eliminate confusing terms, and pave the way to ask the questions that engage citizens.

For example, the 2015 budget was a 110-page PDF file that would be nearly impossible for a regular citizen to sort through and decipher. With Socrata’s Open Budget in place, the budget is now interactive, featuring maps and colorful graphs that are much easier to understand.

A streamlined implementation

Implementing the Open Budget app took less than 30 days, and staff time was streamlined to ensure no one was overburdened with the process. Fred Diehl, Assistant Town Administrator for the Town of Erie, took ownership of the implementation, and—with Socrata’s help—called on additional staff members only when absolutely necessary, enabling them to stay focused on other projects. The process was efficient because Open Budget is a single purpose app, keeping the focus tight and easy to manage, so the project could be completed quickly.

Open Budget saves time and money, delivers insight

The town of Erie has learned financial transparency saves time and resources in the long run because it makes information accessible in real time on the Erie, Colorado website. And, it’s also a great resource for the town’s staff who frequently use Open Budget to get the details on budget allocations because it is much simpler than the spreadsheets they formerly worked with. They even use it in their regular meetings as an information visualization resource.

The town’s staff finds that seeing the budget in graphic form makes a different impression on those who interact with it, compared to the old pages of numbers. “There’s some risk with this,” says Diehl, “but it helps drive understanding and engagement.”

Open Budget can also reassure. For example, viewing the budget with the app showed Erie had planned appropriately for water needs , which is vital for towns in Colorado. “After viewing the data with Socrata, our public works director confirmed that we are in the business of water,” says Diehl.

And analytics show people outside of government are looking at the data too. Since its launch, traffic to the new website has been good, says Diehl. “We feel strongly this is a great way to tell our story.”

To learn more about Erie’s experiences with adapting financial transparency, hear Fred Diehl, Assistant Town Administrator for the Town of Erie, Colorado, speak about the decision, the process, and the results.

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