August 25, 2010 By Karen Wilkinson
Transparency has become a hot issue and goal for governments lately, most recently in California following the scandal that rocked the city of Bell, which was spending $1.6 million annually on salaries for three city employees. The alarming revelation prompted the state controller to require cities and counties to disclose employees' salaries in an online, public database.
But the joint city and county government of Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky., has a step up on what others are just now starting to make public. Last year, it launched a comprehensive Web portal -- Your Tax Dollars at Work -- that offers residents the ability to delve into the city's budget. Using the Louisville Checkbook feature, users can search by agency, vendor or category to find weekly updated expenditure data.
"From tires to emergency radios and police uniforms to the $691,000 we've spent on salt for the roads this year, it's all available to see," Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson said in a December 2009 press release.
The posting of such fiscal details came about in 2009 when Abramson and the Metro Council approved an ordinance that mandated such information be posted on the city's website. The site's features -- Where the City Gets its Money, How the City Spends Your Money, Louisville Checkbook, City Employees' Salaries, Stimulus Funding for Louisville, and a Q and A section -- have gradually been rolled out, said Louisville Metro CIO Beth Niblock.
But the latest addition to the Louisville Checkbook feature -- the ability to view vendor contracts with the city -- may set a new standard in how governments make available information to the public. All contracts of $50,000 or more approved after June 30 are posted online and viewable in a PDF.
"We were hoping to be one of the first out there with this information, and I think we were," said Office for Management and Budget Controller Kevin Moore.
This latest addition brings much-needed context to the Louisville Checkbook feature, Niblock said. Before its launch, users could view one-time expenditures, but didn't have details on the goods the city received in return. Without such context, the public could easily be confused by the labeling of financial details, said Office for Management and Budget Director Jane Driskell, noting it was a time-consuming process for her staff to label categories with user-friendly terms.
"When you deal with financial systems every day, we might have labeled some expenditures or revenues a certain way that was meaningful to us but would not have been meaningful to the general public," Driskell said. "From a non-IT perspective, adding that context was and continues to be a challenge."
For example, an expense for alcoholic beverages was originally labeled as such, though it was a refund account for alcoholic beverage permits. "To Jane Q public, I would have seen that and said, 'Why the heck is Louisville spending $50,000 on alcohol?'" Driskell said. "Well we weren't, so adding that context became important -- and that's a real-life example that happened to us."
Other than the required redaction of confidential information from vendor contracts -- like federal tax identification numbers -- the information is complete and the same one would receive when requesting it in person.
"We always give them the ability to come in and view the information, but we're also able to say, 'Hey, look, this information is available on our website and we can direct them," Driskell said. "I think there is a feel of more open government and in reality, that information is out there, which it wasn't before."
While the vendor contract data has generally been well received by the public, some want to be able to download in bulk, Niblock said, much like San Francisco's www.datasf.org.
"People want the financials so they can do a bulk download," she said. "I think the bulk data release will be the next big thing."
Niblock anticipates that will be deployed in the next few months.
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