Suwanee Makes Budget Data Engaging and Fun
The city of Suwanee, Ga., prioritizes finding ways to engage its 17,600 residents with data and it shows: Suwanee announced the debut of their financial transparency site with a creative Halloween-themed social media campaign. Their Open Budget gives residents a clear, understandable view of financial data, while allowing staffers to see up-to-date information in their preferred visual format. We spoke with Abby Wilkerson, Suwanee’s Public Information Officer, about the city’s inspiration for Open Budget, as well as her best advice for other cities considering a similar program.
Socrata: Why was it so important to take on this Open Budget project?
Abby Wilkerson: This project was championed by Amie Sakmar, Suwanee’s Director of Finance. One of Amie’s constant goals is to provide complete and clear financial information to the citizens of Suwanee. Annually, she creates a regular, in-depth budget document, but also a Citizens Operating Budget which explains the city’s financials without overwhelming. This website is the natural next step. As Suwanee City Manager Marty Allen says, “Amie embodies the way we do things in Suwanee. She adds an element of fun to, quite frankly, boring numbers, and is a master of using those numbers to tell the story of our city.”
Speaking of Marty and champions, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention him in this conversation. Marty is a constant advocate for transparency in government; it’s not just an obligation to share this information, but at the heart of how our citizens hold us accountable.
Socrata: What do you think the impact will be on Suwanee residents?
Wilkerson: Like I said, we’re big believers in authenticity and transparency in government, and that certainly includes our financials. Our citizens should be able to easily access and understand our spending. At its most simplified, this is the taxpayers’ money, and it’s their right to know that we are being fiscally responsible for their dollars. The open data website is incredibly intuitive, and allows citizens to dig as far as their interests take them.
“We will be using the open budget program to replace our monthly financial reports for departments and council.”
Socrata: How will Open Budget allow your to streamline your workflow?
Wilkerson: We will be using the open budget program to replace our monthly financial reports for departments and council. Before implementing this program, the financial team would prepare monthly statements that were outdated as soon as they were produced. The new program will allow departments and council to obtain current data in a simple, non-technical manner. If our mayor likes looking at information as a bar graph, he can do it. The city clerk prefers a pie chart? She can do it. Zoning board wants to know what has happened over the past five years? They can easily do it. The ability to obtain current information in different formats will help decision makers be successful in monitoring financial data, understanding trends, and identify budgetary problems before they occur.
Socrata: How does this data program inform all the other systems and programs of your government?
Wilkerson: This program takes our static citizen operating budget and gives it LIFE. It makes the numbers interactive and shows the annual progress of collections and expenditures. Prior, we would produce the budget in brief but the document and numbers were not updated as reviewable presentation for citizens to easily review and understand. This system provides the transparency of how the budget is performing on an ongoing basis, not just a snapshot of a moment in time.
Socrata: What advice do you have for other governments considering rolling out a budget website?
Wilkerson: Be sure you understand your audience needs and your individual government. Data needs to be presented in a manner that makes sense to an average citizen and ties with other financial reports. Take the time to make sure the structure is telling the community’s story. Sometimes you have to intentionally stop thinking like an accountant and be an average Joe. The numbers are not just numbers, they tell the story of where the resources came from and what services were provided. Accountants need to embrace being story tellers and not just bean counters.