Massachusetts Cuts Costs and Invites Citizens to Dig into Financial Facts Online
Imagine someone else was managing your bank account. You’d probably want some kind of system to keep them accountable. Why? Simple: It’s your money so you want to know how it’s being spent, and see that information on demand. That’s precisely the thinking behind Massachusetts’ financial transparency platform, CTHRU, which opens up payroll and spending data, creates an easier path to statewide costs savings, and empowers citizens to keep officials accountable.
A Better Solution
CTHRU is a unique open data and open records platform powered by Socrata that goes beyond serving up rows of numbers and transactions. It provides visuals of the data so citizens and staff can understand it quickly, such as health and human services costs and expenditures and payroll data.
“People see the benefit of using the applications because of the visualizations. They allow for analytics,” says Chris Guido, Deputy Comptroller and Chief Information Officer for the Comptroller’s Office.
All applications are available on mobile devices and personal computers, are ADA compliant for sight-impaired users, and offer both staff and citizens a more intuitive way to search, access, and review public spending information. The hope has been for this new system to spark broad interest and innovation.
While the original transparency system took nearly seven years to customize and install, Socrata helped Massachusetts successfully launch their new CTHRU site in just under seven months. Now, a massive amount of financial data, including approximately 21 million accounting transactions dating back to 2010, is updated on at least a weekly basis, visualized for staff and the public, and is available to developers via API.
According to Massachusetts Comptroller Tom Shack, the transition to CTHRU was a deliberate push to replace what he calls “innovacracy.” In other words, he wanted to stop the trend of government agencies taking innovative ideas and superimposing bureaucratic frameworks on them, ruining the creative spirit that fuels innovation.
In looking at the current state workforce, records showed that 30% of staff is retirement eligible and 45% of staff will be at or near retirement age in the next five years. With this reality in mind, Shack recognized a spike in retirements would reduce business and technical staff support for legacy systems and challenge Massachusetts to identify new models of software support delivery. Shack said in a presentation at NASCIO 2017, “No one is going to hire their way out of the silver tsunami. We’re going to have to tech our way out of it.”
Not only does the new streamlined CTHRU solution offer a completely transparent look at statewide financial operations, it is a more sustainable model to run. The original system required hundreds of staff hours to customize and install and was costly to maintain. Meanwhile, CTHRU has cost just 14%, by comparison, to get started and run, and the system is regularly maintained by Socrata at no additional cost.
As reported by the State House News Service, Shack explained how this new system reduces “innovacracy.” “We literally cut out not just the middleman, we’ve cut out a whole group and a layer of bureaucracy around those public records requests that is going to allow free and open access to the data. That is what makes us, both the Comptroller’s Office and Massachusetts, unique,” he said.
Beyond cost savings, CTHRU has also boosted Massachusetts’ ability to operate in a more environmentally responsible way. “It also is allowing us to reduce the carbon footprint of enterprise applications through the use of self-service capabilities, online processing of electronic forms, and workflow to eliminate paper-based processing to the greatest extent possible and promote electronic signature documentation,” Shack said at the 2017 NASC Conference.
At the day-to-day level, CTHRU is also making it easier for state employees to access and download financial data. In fact, Shack noted that he’s found state financial departments and agencies choose to work directly through the CTHRU system rather than the internal payroll system because it’s so much faster and easier.
Driving Public Engagement and Transparency
While CTHRU has led to major improvements internally, it’s also opened the door for increased transparency and engagement with citizens. For example, the Office of the Comptroller reported that dozens of improvements to accessibility were made during testing phases, including special features for users with disabilities. “This is a great benefit of getting away from the outdated, customized legacy system model in favor of a single instance running in the ‘cloud,’” Shack noted in a press release. “When improvements are made for one subscriber, they are made for all which breaks down silos within and among the states. We are on the right path to making the system as accessible to as many users as possible.”
To support the open data concept, the Office of the Comptroller has gone one step further and invited citizens, students, reporters, and organizations to look into the data to identify areas of concern or opportunities for improvement. “Rather than having just the eyes of the comptroller staff looking at the data… we have millions of eyes in Massachusetts that are now our quality assurance group,” Shack explained at the NASC Conference. “I challenge people all the time to try to find problems.”
That approach has been effective, as there have been more than 150,000 page views and more than 20,000 unique engaged users reported on the portal within the last six months. The platform has also sparked media interest in payroll salaries and state spending over a two-year period on everything from furniture to IT supplies.
Local watchdog organizations like Common Cause Massachusetts are voicing their support for CTHRU as well. “Platforms like CTHRU are powerful tools to hold government accountable,” said Executive Director Pam Wilmot. “They allow citizens, researchers, and the media to closely follow state spending and to evaluate whether it is in the public interest. The data is available 24/7 with powerful search tools and many levels of detail down to individual transactions.”
Shack noted that the new system has been enormously useful from a public dialogue standpoint and works as a constant reminder that the dollars represented in the system belong to the public, and should therefore be easily accessible by the public. Governor Charlie Baker echoed those sentiments during an interview reported on State House News Service, saying, “This kind of program and the availability and access to this data is why [better technology] is so important.”
A Bright Future
Looking ahead, Massachusetts is motivated to continue making improvements to their ERP system and also expand sustainable and paperless operations. There are also plans to update CTHRU to include information on pensions, executive department new hires, quasi-state agency payroll and quasi-state agency spending.
For now, Shack shares that CTHRU is helping the Commonwealth of Massachusetts approach financial transparency and data sharing differently. “We think that having open data and having the public’s eyes and public’s resources brought to bear on our data will be useful. It’ll be useful from making sure that we’re avoiding fraud and waste and abuse. We also think it’s useful from a data analytics standpoint,” Shack said as reported by the State House News Service.
Shack understands the responsibility to tell the citizens of Massachusetts what is happening with their money, statewide, every day. “As a [former] prosecutor . . . I’m interested in the truth,” says Shack. “This is a truth machine.”