Getting Past the Data Dump: A Push Toward Real Transparency (Industry Perspective)

While most people support opening up government data and granting access to budgets, most of the information currently being shared isn’t as helpful as it could be.

by Erin Latham / October 6, 2015

The national economy is finally showing signs of recovery: Unemployment rates are falling, and the stock market is bouncing back. Despite these good signs, at least 22 states still project budget shortfalls for the upcoming fiscal year.

Due to stagnant and declining tax revenues, fluctuating job creation, rising pension and health-care costs, and a lack of financial reserves, state and local governments are struggling to balance their budgets. If this problem isn’t solved soon, citizens are likely to see cuts in public services; government employees will lose their jobs or benefits; there will be less money devoted to institutions such as military bases, public school programs and health-care clinics; and it’s only a matter of time before we see increased taxes.
 
As dire as this situation is, it can certainly be rectified. The solution begins with enhancing governmental access to data to boost internal transparency and reporting, leading to better forecasting, budget preparation and planning.

A Movement Toward Accessibility

Americans have grown accustomed to having nearly unlimited access to information in their day-to-day lives. In this day and age, they feel all data concerning civic matters should be readily accessible and consumable, so these info-savvy individuals are pushing local governments to open their data ports and let them in. 
 
They argue that transparency isn’t just beneficial to them — it will also save local and state governments time and money by allowing internal staff and executives to leverage data in a way they can understand and swiftly act upon. 
 
However, we’ve put the cart before the horse in our push toward transparency. While I fully support open data and granting access to budgets, most of the information currently being shared is at a summary level and isn’t as helpful as it could be. This is just a transparency Band-Aid; what we really need is a comprehensive transparency solution. 
 
Government organizations need better access to their data before they can truly achieve a useful level of transparency. Typically they rely on searchable PDFs and Excel spreadsheets manually compiled by IT departments — a time-consuming endeavor that results in mostly unhelpful floods of data dumps
 
As a result, only 11 percent of Americans believe governments effectively share data with the public. This number must improve — and it certainly can if governments are granted timely access to accurate, easy-to-decipher budgetary data. 
 
Cloud computing and subscription-based software hold the keys to solving our transparency woes. These automated solutions support business intelligence by offering quick access to small data (e.g., health procurement spend, budget to actual, etc.) combined with powerful analytic capabilities — all without the need to commit to large capital expenditures and heavy IT involvement. Data is confirmed to be accurate before the public has access to it, and fiscal and budgetary decision-making can dramatically improve across every governmental department. 

What Does an End-to-End Cloud Solution Look Like?

As Government Technology published in 2013, Williamson County, Texas, has always been a transparency trailblazer. It was one of the first counties in America to open departmental data to everyone by adopting a prebuilt cloud-based reporting and data management solution called Performance Center. This tool enabled departments to forecast, plan, manage and distribute fiscal data in a fashion that anyone — internal or external — could access and comprehend. 
 
Prebuilt based on governmental performance and reporting standards and best practices, the system saved Williamson County $125,000 in infrastructure, labor and software costs in its first year of use. More than 10,000 citizens flocked to the county’s website to access information, and in late 2014, the Government Finance Officers Association awarded the county its Louisville Award for Innovation in Government Finance for its internal and external transparency initiative. 
 
Here are a few additional benefits Williamson County realized in the first year: 
 
  • Efficiency: The cloud platform freed the county’s IT department from gathering and cleansing data, writing reports, and implementing and maintaining new technologies. The county clerk’s office saves five hours every week by running one all-encompassing report instead of combining three individual reports into an Excel spreadsheet. The auditor’s office spends 30 percent less time preparing grant reports because the technology consolidates several ERP reports into one analyzer. And the treasurer’s office spends 75 percent less time on running and distributing its reports. 
  • Sustainability: The need for inter-office paper reporting distribution has been eliminated because all users have access to reporting on demand. This doesn’t just save resources; it also enables easy access to information that was previously too time-consuming to analyze. Additionally the county can now use analytics to manage financial data and performance measures for grants and projects and report grant compliance more easily.
  • Public Engagement: Citizens are utilizing the county’s new tools to monitor debt, spending and other activities that used to require costly, time-intensive requests. Potential investors and rating agencies now take advantage of this easy-to-access data to gain insight into the county’s financial position. This has had a positive effect on bond elections and issuances, and it has saved the county millions in borrowing costs.
The benefits of adopting a cloud-based data gathering, analysis and distribution solution are clear: It provides an opportunity to streamline an arduous several-month process into a quick, accurate and automated system. Traditional methods require too many channels, too much time and too much money — and once the data is finally shared, it’s often largely indecipherable. 
 
Any municipality can easily replicate the success of Williamson County. It’s the only way we can truly satisfy America’s yearning for transparency and solve our budgetary woes.
 
 

Erin Latham
founded Mo’mix Solutions with the goal of delivering software and services that drive better outcomes for the public sector and education. She has served as a technology government adviser focused on ERP, budget, business intelligence, and open data/transparency solutions to local and state governments and higher education organizations for more than 15 years.