For agencies on a budget, financial analysis as a service
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Jul 28, 2014
If an advocate for the homeless in New Haven, Conn., wants to know how the community services agency there is spending its money, today that person can find out with a few clicks of a mouse.
Gone are the days when the public had to submit Freedom of Information Act requests or sift through thousands of files to find public funding documents. As of February, that information has been available on a website stood up by OpenGov.com, an “open budget” company.
OpenGov.com offers web-based financial visualization software for state and local governments. It is designed to make government budget and financial data more accessible by presenting it in a user-friendly, interactive manner.
“Before, you could never see data in a 400-page PDF document quickly, you could never drill down by types of expense,” said Doug Hausladen, director of the New Haven Department of Transportation, Traffic and Parking. “It would just be flipping around from page 100 to page 400.”
Using his own department as an example, Hausladen said earlier financial reporting relied on a spreadsheet that had limited uses. In a case where a spreadsheet might show costs holding steady, for example, OpenGov.com would reveal that personnel costs had actually risen, while program costs had fallen, keeping costs level.
“It tells a better story of what a department can do and what we’re capable of when we’re able to pair this data – this sort of static financial data – with accountability,” Hausladen said. “If I’m able to tell you, a member of the public, ‘we’re able to have this much output while having this cost,’ that’s a really powerful story.”
New Haven’s website lets users see expenses and revenues since 2010 represented by graphs and tables. Graphs are color coded by departments, from largest to smallest, for quick reference. Users can also dig deeper by opting to check revenue or expense accounts for a single department. All of the information can then be shared by email, social media or downloaded.
New Haven has taken a gradual approach to establishing financial transparency using the OpenGov technology. In the first iteration, said Hausladen, “we’ve only put so much staff time into making our data better, look presentable,” Hausladen said. “Every year we do this, and every iteration, we’ll get better and better and more transparent.”
OpenGov works as a subscription service. Agencies email their raw general ledger data – Excel or comma-separated formats are preferred, but the company has worked with others such as SAP and Quickbooks. The company maps the data, accounting for each municipality’s unique chart of accounts –and provides a link to a website for review, often within a week.
“Our focus is exclusive to budget and financial data as we believe this is the most critical information a government maintains,” said Zac Bookman, the company’s chief executive officer. “This data clearly articulates how an organization operates and how the organization serves its constituents. At OpenGov, our mission is to create powerful transparency solutions and business intelligence software for governments so they can save time, improve decision-making and build trust and engagement with citizens.”
OpenGov’s tools are public-facing, but governments can secure or limit access to any of the sites.
Other companies are working on ways to make government financial data more open. Mo’Mix Solutions, for instance, offers an Open Data Transparency Platform, while cloud software firm Socrata sells various open data tools. Both companies also provide tools for government workers to manage web publishing. Some cities such as New York City are publishing their data on GitHub for developers to exploit. In contrast, localities don’t need new technologies or tools with OpenGov.
Despite the benefits that these decision-making tools offer, the International City/County Management Association reported in a December 2013 white paper that less than 25 percent use their financial reports to help inform their policy decisions. The association also found that annual financial reporting costs taxpayers $10,000 to $50,000, although larger communities spend more than $200,000.
That’s no longer a sustainable operating procedure, Hausladen said. His city is set to roll out more open data offerings in the next few months, including New Haven Connect, a website that lists all available city apps and some open data sets.
“The era of controlling one’s data is almost dead, and in New Haven, we’re going to be continually putting out data in an open manner to make sure that citizens have as much confidence in government as we can reasonably provide,” he said.