A partnership between Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel and the finance visualization startup OpenGov will result in one of the most sweeping statewide transparency efforts to date.
The initiative, announced earlier this month, offers 3,900-plus local governments — from townships, cities, counties, to school districts and more — a chance to place revenues and expenditures online free of charge through the state’s budget transparency site OhioCheckbook.com. The endeavor is the culmination of the state’s financial transparency campaign that launched in 2007 when Mandel took office and put public salaries and state property data online.
Once rollout begins at the end of June, citizens will be able to track local government revenues and expenditures via interactive graphs — that illustrate not only a bird's eye view of a budget, but also the granular details of check-by-check spending. Highlights include top earning government contractors, highest paid officials and revenue consumption by departments. OhioCheckbook.com already posts the past seven years of the state’s $408 billion in expenditures, and the vision is to scale the transparency to all of Ohio’s government entities.
The state estimates that costs for the massive enterprise will be recuperated through reduced spending thanks to citizen monitoring and sharper accounting. Mandel said expenditures for OhioCheckbook.com were $814,000, and costs to add jurisdictions will be depend on the size and complexity of their budgets.
“We believe it will pay for itself very quickly by virtue of forcing politicians and bureaucrats to think twice before they waste taxpayer money,” Mandel said. “It makes public officials think twice before they go to a conference in Hawaii — when they could have gone to conference in Cincinnati — and it makes them think twice before they stay at the Ritz Carlton on the taxpayer’s dime.”
Since the December 2014 debut of OhioCheckbook.com, the state’s financial transparency rating from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group has jumped from 46th to first in the nation. Mandel hopes the state’s front-running position will bolster fellow governments to embrace the initiative.
“This transparency train has left the station,” Mandel said. “And I think the reality is, there’s going to be certain local governments on the front of the train and certain local governments on the back of the train, but eventually, I think there’s going to be a lot of public pressure from citizens for every local government to get their finances online.”
As a Republican, Mandel’s drive for fiscal accountability may follow typical conservative leanings; however, bipartisan developments at both the federal level and among cities and states indicate joint support for such transparency.
In May 2014, President Obama signed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) — drafted by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — that requires all federal agencies to publish expenditures online as open data. Likewise, in May of 2013, the president issued an executive order for federal agencies to publish all public data — financial or otherwise — as open data.
Further evidence of the push is reported by OpenGov itself with its growing lineup of government customers. In addition to Ohio, OpenGov’s customers include 275 governments across 37 states -- the company’s customer base grew by more than 500 percent in 2014, according to a company release.
Socrata, one of OpenGov’s primary competitors, is banking on the rising demand for such open budgets technologies as well. The Seattle based open data startup launched its own financial transparency apps in 2014 and calculates much of its growth, expected to double this year, will be attached to the trend.
OpenGov Co-Founder Zachary Bookman said that from the startup’s inception he, along with fellow Co-Founders Mike Rosengarten, Nate Levine and Joe Lonsdale, have collaborated with city officials who felt hampered by outdated accounting software, and talked with citizens who felt frustrated by an absence of accessible information. As developers, Bookman said the idea his team had was to simplify the number crunching through a set of online interactive graphs, each click moving deeper into revenue and spending, from the overall budget, to departments, to a tiered system of colored categories. The change differs greatly from traditional publishing methods like Adobe Acrobat PDFs or Microsoft Excel Spreadsheets, which often lack context.
“As engineers and designers we thought, ‘How do you match the general ledger data, that’s all the spending and revenue, with the chart of accounts, which is the full financial and organizational structure?'” Bookman said. “Through a lot of hard work, iteration — and maybe a little bit of luck — we came onto this interface that’s useful for both citizens and professional accountants.”
In Ohio’s case, Bookman said the partnership represents a major milestone for the company as its largest deal — and the first time they’ve seen a state invest so heavily in transparency.
“I think it’s a big deal for the company and it’s a big deal for the country, we kind of see it in that context,” Bookman said. “I don’t know of any state that has procured this kind of technology at all of its localities.”
Though the offer is extended to all parts of Ohio, Mandel noted that the transparency measure would not be mandated. Instead, the Treasurer’s office has sent more than 18,000 letters to every school board member, city council member, county commissioner, mayor and other decision-makers, to ask if they will heed the offer. Mandel said his intentions are for the localities to see participation as part of a public duty.
“I’m doing this because I believe the taxpayers have a right to know how their tax money is being spent, and my vision is to create an army of citizen watch dogs who have the power to hold politicians accountable,” Mandel said. “What we’re doing is taking information that is already a matter of public record and leveraging technology to make it accessible, searchable and navigable by everyday citizens."
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.