Davenport Calls Financial Transparency a Matter of Trust

Customer: City of Davenport | Site: Open Expenditures

When you spend time with city government staff in Davenport, Iowa, you’re apt to hear the words “public trust” now and again. The City’s administration has sought to earn citizens’ trust via a policy of robust information transparency.

“In Davenport we have three ways of looking at transparency,” explains City of Davenport Finance Director Brandon Wright. “First, we’re open. That means people are free to ask questions, and we give the best responses we can. Second, we’re available—information is made available on a regular basis. Third, our information is easily consumable.”

To that end, the City has made enormous strides in digitizing its operational records through its user-friendly open data website, Davenport Today, which makes a broad spectrum of city records available for easy viewing, including all emails from the City Administrator.

The Financial Transparency Challenge

Of major importance to the City’s open data commitment is the enormous job of making volumes of rapidly changing financial data—from payroll to expense checks—as transparent and digitally consumable as Davenport Today’s other records.

“There’s a never-ending why when it comes to citizens’ questions about how we spend our money and why we spend it,” explains Wright, who says this is a reason financial transparency has been a top priority for the city.

Davenport’s city administration has been diligent about publishing accounts payable and payroll information once a year, as required by Iowa code. But, this form of transparency only goes so far. The annually published information must be high level—showing only which department or fund it came from—and there is no way for a citizen to easily aggregate the information to quickly answer a specific financial question.

As part of its overarching mission to earn and maintain the public’s trust through easily consumable financial data, Wright’s team looked for a digital solution to manage the City’s financial transparency, one that wouldn’t eat valuable staff time to manually maintain and populate.

An Open Checkbook

Eventually, thanks to the initial efforts of City of Davenport Budget Management Analyst Mallory Merritt, Wright and his team zeroed in on a Socrata solution, the Open Expenditures app.

“We had been looking for a way to get our financial information on a website or app in a way that it could be consumed weekly,” says Merritt. “As we cut accounts payable checks on Wednesdays, we wanted to get this information online so people could view it by Friday or the following Monday.”

This was critical, Merritt explains, because one of the keys to an enhanced transparency initiative is providing current, up to date, and accurate information.

Three Weeks to New Transparency

During the two-and-half-week build, City of Davenport staff worked with Socrata to launch what would become Davenport Today’s Open Checkbook section, which allows the public to see who’s spending government money, what the money is being spent on, and who the money is going to—right down to the invoice level.

Now, all citizens have to do is visit Open Checkbook and select from a search-criteria menu that includes spending types (such as “most expensive items”), departments and programs that made the payments, and the specific companies receiving the payments. The site provides access to two years of data showing how much the city has spent with each business, and it even allows the public to drill down to the information on each check.

“Before, if someone wanted to see, say, how many checks we paid out to a local home goods store like Home Depot, there was really no way to aggregate this information and summarize it,” says Wright. “Now, if we’ve bought four hammers, Open Checkbook will show that we’ve bought four hammers.”

The Convenience of Automation

Among its array of capabilities, Open Checkbook also shows, in almost real time, how much of the yearly city budget has been spent, as well as employee payroll information, which the Davenport team decided to keep focused on salaries and overtime.

Beyond the tool’s service to the public, Wright’s team especially appreciates that the solution is largely automated, a feature he struggled to find prior to the Open Expenditures app.

“One factor that kept the City from implementing something like this earlier was the concern that it would take an inordinate amount of staff time to constantly update a website to keep accounts payable information current,” he explains. “One of the biggest selling points for us was that the Open Expenditures app could be automated with a backend process, which allows our staff to focus on other things.”

Initial Result: Changing Conversations

Since the launch of Davenport Today and its Open Checkbook toolkit, Wright believes community members are attending council meetings and asking questions related to information they have discovered within the site.

“They often have questions that start with, ‘I was on the Open Checkbook site, and I saw this,’” says Wright. “They come to the table having already done a good amount of research, so the questions are very focused when they interact with city staff and elected officials.”

Over time, his team will analyze how both the Davenport Today site and its tools like Open Checkbook help to create desired efficiencies, such as reducing staff-handled FOIA requests that can be self-answered online—saving both the citizen and the city effort and time.

Plus, now that they’ve got a superb platform, staff hope to add financial transparency data not yet available to the public, such as wire transfers and credit card purchases.

Improvements like these are all part of the City’s ongoing chief responsibility to enhance and preserve the public’s trust, says Wright.

“It’s a priority because we’re spending taxpayer dollars,” he explains. “This means we’re working for our citizens.”