Suspense Builds Around Framingham, Mass., Transparency Portal

Though much of the work is completed, the data sets involving employee salary data, 311 requests and vendor payments have yet to be completed.

by Jim Haddadin, MetroWest Daily News / March 19, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — After pledging to create new financial transparency tools for the public, Framingham has yet to launch a resource that will allow residents to look up salaries, spending records and other city data online.

As part of a two-year agreement with the state, Framingham established a plan in February 2016 to adopt new high-tech tools to give residents more insight into municipal finances.

While much of that work is complete, the city is still months away from finishing a key component: an open data portal that will host employee salary data, 311 requests, records of payments to vendors and other information.

The platform was set to debut last year, but the project stalled amid staffing shortages, said Carly Premo Melo, the city's director of technology services. Melo said staff from other departments and the mayor must still sign off on the initiative, which will require cooperation from a variety of employees.

"We're fairly close to being able to go live with it," she said Friday, putting the launch date three to six months away. "We just need some stakeholder buy-in."

The project comes amid a global push to enhance transparency in the public sector by moving government data online. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that made open and machine-readable data the new default for information produced by the federal government. In Massachusetts, state expenditures and payroll are now tracked through an online platform call CTHRU, operated by the state comptroller's office. A compilation of public databases can also be found on the state's open data page, located at mass.gov/opendata.

Framingham's data portal will be powered by Seattle-based technology company Socrata, which hosts similar repositories for Somerville, Cambridge and other municipalities. The city has been paying maintenance fees to Socrata for at least two years while it gets the website up and running.

A draft version of the project is available on the city's website, though access to resources such as the Open Checkbook — a database of all city expenditures — remains password protected.

Some data sets are loaded into the new open data portal, but don't appear intended for public use. Information about Fire Department emergency calls and building permits was updated as recently as March 2018, for example, but other data sets date back to 2017 and 2016.

Launching the data portal was one of two major initiatives the city spelled out in its Community Compact agreement with the state, though Framingham's efforts to develop the new data portal date back as early as 2015.

The town's annual report from that year notes the Technology Services department was working at that time to launch a Socrata website, which would present "not only financial data but also metrics for services like permitting & certification, requests for service, Public Safety calls and inspection activity."

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito then traveled to Framingham in February 2016 to sign the town's Community Compact. The compact program, launched by Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, offers grant money and technical assistance to communities that adopt best practices in one of several areas.

In its compact agreement, Framingham committed to increasing financial transparency by launching the new data portal, and also loading information about the municipal budget into a Web resource developed by ClearGov.

At a joint meeting Wednesday of the City Council and School Committee, Framingham's finance chief demonstrated the ClearGov application, which is accessible on the city's website.

The interactive tool, which went live last spring, allows users to find high-level views of revenues, expenses and other budget data.

Residents can also input their tax bill to see how tax dollars are spent in the municipal budget, and drill down in greater detail into some budget categories. For example, users can navigate through the site to discover that the town budgeted $122,279 to pay the salary of Brophy Elementary School's principal last year.

However, the records available on ClearGov omit many relevant pieces of information, such as the names of individual employees, or data showing the components that made up their annual salary, such as base pay, overtime and stipends.

In the past two years, the city has released that information in response to public records requests, but the information was provided in spreadsheets, making it more cumbersome to analyze.

During Wednesday's meeting, no mention was made of the unfinished data portal, which would allow residents to access granular data about how the city functions. State records indicate the program is already complete, even though it isn't yet open to the public.

A two-page summary of Framingham's transparency initiatives available on the state's website notes the measures will be particularly useful during Framingham's transition from town to city.

"In times of change, information becomes especially vital," the summary reads. "It allows residents to understand what's going on and allows them to make informed decisions. Providing interactive tools, rather than traditional documents can greatly improve the ability of residents to interact with their local government."

Discussing the delay in getting the site running, Melo said it took time to train staff on methods to update data automatically, rather than manually loading new figures into the data portal. With only one or two staff members assigned to the project over the past year, it was also difficult to get it off the ground, she said.

In the future, the data portal will host data on building permits, inspections, financial information, payroll information, spending, the budget and other records of interest, such as dog licenses.

"I think the residents will really appreciate the information that they'll be able to see," she said.

©2018 MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.