Bond Tracking Tool Helps Citizens Follow Funding

GIS-based Web tool lets citizens view funding and project status in California.

by / January 18, 2009
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Think of all the bonds for transportation, parks, universities and other government projects the states pass each election year. They always involve "drop in the bucket" tax increases and promise dazzling community enhancements. Do citizens really give these bonds another thought after voting for them? Most people lack time to navigate government bureaucracies. So California implemented its Bond Accountability Database in 2007, a GIS-based Web tool for citizens to track where the money goes from passed bonds and the status of the resulting projects.

"You can see whether the project is on time, on budget and within scope," said Bryan Cash, deputy assistant secretary for Bonds and Grants of the California Resources Agency.

The database - -came by an executive order from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"It's our responsibility to hold up our end of the bargain by being able to demonstrate to the people that we are spending the money they entrusted us to spend wisely," said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of External Affairs for the California Department of Finance (DoF).


Readable Descriptions

Many know the frustration of using Web tools supposedly designed to keep governments transparent, but instead deliver information in dense, jargon-filled language. The DoF wanted to avoid that, by instructing all participating agencies to submit project status descriptions with easily readable text.

"We don't want people to have to be experts in the different program areas to understand the information on the Web site," said John Ellison, agency information officer of the California Resources Agency.

Agencies divide those project descriptions into three sections. The "front end" identifies the agency running the project, and its plan to execute the project, including metrics and the amount of money being spent.

The "middle" section is where citizens should check routinely because it offers status reports on projects - where the money has gone and what's on time or late. The "back-end" section reports audit results on how efficiently projects were completed and whether inappropriate spending occurred.


Behind the Scene

California's bond accountability Web tool is actually several Web sites linked together, sharing the graphic motif of the governor's site. The DoF hosts the first few pages. Once users search for a bond, a hyperlink takes them to the bond accountability Web page of the agency spending that bond money.

"Trying to design a system where one agency housed all of the data and all of the other departments fed into it, was something that would cost more than we could have done with our existing resources and short time frame," said Theresa Gunn, principal program budget analyst of the DoF.


Creative Saving

The Resources Agency saved money and time by pairing its existing GIS team with a Microsoft SQL database operated by the state's Department of Parks and Recreation, a.k.a. "California State Parks." All people reporting on bond projects in both agencies submit their information to the California State Parks database.

The GIS team in the Resources Agency then accesses the database and translates the information into GIS data. This lets citizens narrow their queries bond to projects affecting areas where they live.

"We're also developing an advanced query so you can ask, not only by location - say you're interested in all projects in a specific county costing more than $50,000 and less than $1 million," Ellison said. "The general public might not be interested in that, but different interest groups might like to understand where those dollars are going and affecting their particular areas of interest."

The California State Parks database features a Web application allowing anyone submitting data

to do so online. Ellison said a citizen who tracks bond projects on the Resources Agency/California State Parks site gets information that's accurate to the day.


Staying Dial-Up Friendly

It's easy to forget dial-up users still exist, but they made up 13 percent of U.S. Internet users in January 2008, according to Nielson Online. The state kept its bond accountability tool dial-up-compatible by applying compression techniques to the graphics code. This made the data easier for dial-up users to load. Webmasters also stayed clear of pop-up graphics - the kind that change as users mouse over them.

"We were just aware of the amount of code that needed to be transmitted and tried to make the most efficient use of it," said Ted Fitzpatrick, webmaster of the DoF.


Patchwork Job

California's Bonds Accountability Database can be an inconsistent experience. For example, the layout and functionality for searching transportation projects funded by California's Proposition 1B projects is different than searching for natural resources projects funded by Proposition 84 projects. It depends on how the agency spending the bond funds decided to program its portion of the database.

The DoF made all participating agencies offer searches based on city, legislative district and ZIP code. Some agencies offer more search options than that. Some portions of the database also offer information that others don't. For example, if someone researched the Route 24/Caldecott Tunnel Corridor project funded by Proposition 1B, he or she could get a contact person name, e-mail address and phone number. By contrast, researching the Chico Water Pollution Control Plant Expansion Project, funded by Proposition 84, only gets users a contact name - no phone number or e-mail address. Also, the path to that information is completely different.

Gunn said the inconsistency was unavoidable, given the project's short time frame.

"There were more challenges because not everybody had the same platform [or] databases that were identified similarly. Given those challenges, we chose not to attempt to resolve those [inconsistent search issues]," Gunn said, adding that the state plans to address them in the future.

Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.