Transparency: Many ways to put your agency’s budget online
Across California governments are putting more of their information online. While browser-based charts and graphs showing your agencies’ revenues and expenditures will impress constituents, moving fiscal data online can be challenging – especially for those governments that do not have a lot of technology geeks on staff. Fortunately, governments now have an array of options at their disposal. We survey them here.
Government financial transparency efforts can be classified into two broad categories: more accessible budget data and online checkbook spending. In this post, I’ll tackle budget transparency; I will look at checkbooks in a subsequent article.
Virtually every government produces an annual budget that must be approved by its governing board (and its executive in some cases). Historically, finance staff have produced budget books which, in the computer age, are now published online in PDF form. Budgets minimally include one year of spending authorizations by department and function, but may also include revenue forecasts, projections for future years and prior year actuals.
Another source of actual revenues and expenditures are audited financial statements contained in Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports (CAFRs) and Single Audit filings. Not all governments produce audited financial statements: only those that issue municipal bonds and/or receive more than $750,000 in federal funds annually are required to do so.
Like budgets, audited financial statements typically appear in PDF format. They can run to hundreds of pages and are not easily understood by the general public, relying as they do on government accounting terminology. Some governments have tried to make the accounting data more accessible by issuing Popular Annual Financial Reports – a summary of the CAFR with more plain English and more graphics.
Budget Transparency Vendors
Over the last decade, web browsers have become much better at displaying interactive charts and graphs. As a result, government budget transparency efforts have migrated to the web. Many governments hire a service provider to place their budget and actual revenue and expenditure data.
The most popular such vendor is OpenGov, a northern California-based startup. A local government can send OpenGov financial data in a variety of formats. The company will load the data onto a custom web site, which it maintains on behalf of the government client. OpenGov has several hundred public sector clients nationally, including several dozen in California. OpenGov’s implementation for Palo Alto may be seen here: https://paloalto.opengov.com.
OpenGov competitors include Munetrix and ClearGov. Munetrix, which operates primarily in Michigan, also calculates a fiscal score and provides comparisons between governments. ClearGov, based in Massachusetts, provides attractive infographic pages for its municipal clients, primarily on the East Coast. ClearGov has also created basic pages for California cities based on publicly available data.
Commercial providers offer extensive functionality and great ease of use for their government clients, but their services cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per year. Because these sites are likely to be visited by a relatively small number of active citizens and researchers, some elected officials may conclude that licensing a commercial transparency site is not cost effective.
In such cases, governments may wish to consider open-source or other low-cost alternatives. An open-source software tool is not only freely available, but can also be customized by in-house software professionals at no out-of-pocket cost. That said, modifying third-party software can be a complex and time-consuming task for a local government’s programming team. In most cases, local governments should treat open-source software the same way they use commercial software: they should either use it as is or find another alternative.
The most widely used open-source government financial transparency tool is OpenSpending – which is mostly used outside the US. OpenSpending provides a free platform for uploading and displaying government revenue and spending data. An example visualization – implemented for the Republic of Jamaica – may be seen here.
Civio, a civic technology group in Spain, has built a very elaborate open-source budget visualization tool for the City of Barcelona and other Spanish local governments. Civio’s tool is multilingual and could be implemented by cities in other countries.
An open-source platform more customized for US local governments is maintained by Involution Studios, whose Visual Town Budget is used by Arlington, MA. This product is used in some other Massachusetts cities and in Charlottesville, VA.
A lower-tech alternative that we frequently use here at CPC is Google Sheets. You can upload an Excel workbook to Google Sheets, create simple graphs and then publish or share the results over the web. Although Google Sheets is not open-source, it is free to use. Microsoft also provides an online version of Excel, which is available to governments at reduced cost.