Though the truth may be in numbers, uncovering that truth often can be a matter of interpretation — as is often the case for those swimming in the murky waters of city budgets. There are terms to define, foggy correlations tying income to expenditures, and a near innumerable array of lists and spreadsheets, categories and subcategories.
This confusion was enough to drive Chris Bullock toward entrepreneurship. In 2015, he founded ClearGov, a financial transparency platform to decipher city budgets with interactive infographics. Bullock launched the venture after co-founding the legal analytics and benchmarking company Sky Analytics, acquired by Huron Consulting Group in 2015. As a serial entrepreneur, Bullock said his new startup is mostly self-funded, but also has gained support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Prototype Fund.
Ambitions are to architect a national network of cities, selling governments premium management options while offering citizens unfettered access to civic finance and comparison tools to benchmark cities against similar towns. At present, ClearGov covers the entire states of California, Massachusetts and New York.
In an interview with Government Technology, Bullock gives details about ClearGov’s beginnings and next steps for the startup.
ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock: ClearGov was conceived around a very simple question: “How are my property taxes being put to use?” After digging into my town’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) [a set of government budgetary statements], I realized that their financials were difficult to understand and lacked any comparative context. For instance, at the time, my local town government was proposing a ballot to take on debt to build a new elementary school. The first questions that came to my mind were, “How much are we spending on education as a town already?” and, “Are we spending too much or too little compared to similar towns?”
I also wondered, “How much debt does our town have now compared to other towns?” and, “Is it responsible for the town to take on more debt?” ClearGov was founded to provide answers to questions like these to the average citizen via easy-to-understand infographics that offer comparative context through benchmarking.
GT: How has ClearGov worked with jurisdictions to clarify government finance for citizens?
Bullock: The foundation of ClearGov is built on open data provided by state entities. We’ve created more than 3,000 municipal transparency pages using open data for every city and town in Massachusetts, New York and California. The drawback of open data is that it is generally a couple years old and does not provide the granularity that citizens may be seeking. As such, ClearGov allows municipalities to “claim” their city or town’s page and upgrade the information presented to be more recent and much more granular. Municipalities may also add details on other funds and add commentary to every metric to help better tell their “financial story.” Additionally, we will work with municipalities to embed ClearGov infographics into their city’s website for a more cohesive user experience.
GT: Looking at competitors, what distinguishes ClearGov from a startup like OpenGov, which packages budgets into interactive graphs and charts for citizens?
Bullock: While other startups provide platforms for municipal financial transparency, ClearGov takes a unique approach. First, our market approach has been to build a resource for taxpayers, so ClearGov offers value regardless of a municipality’s involvement. Second, our design leverages the simplicity and power of infographics to help municipalities tell their financial story in a manner that is more easily consumable by average citizens. And lastly, ClearGov is the only platform to offer municipal benchmarking on its public-facing website. We believe benchmarking transforms financial data into actionable intelligence — not only for residents, but also for internal stakeholders.
GT: I see your team just launched some features. Can you describe what these additions might mean for governments?
Bullock: ClearGov recently launched our “Premier” platform, which allows municipalities to leverage ClearGov as their financial transparency platform. Premier clients can update their ClearGov page with more recent and detailed financial information, as well as offer commentary on each metric to better tell their “financial story.” You can see a great example of a Premier municipality in Easton, Mass.
GT: How do you overcome the challenges of working in the government sector with some jurisdictions leery of startups, and others, having long procurement cycles?
Bullock: My background has been in B2B software for the last 15 years, so I am accustomed to long sales cycles. I would actually say that local government sales cycles are shorter than selling software to Fortune 500 companies that have large procurement and legal departments to wade through. While long sales cycles do present some challenges, they also present an opportunity to build long-lasting customer relationships that are difficult to unseat.
With regard to jurisdictions that are leery of working with startups, we simply move on to other jurisdictions. In the beginning stages of any market, your company must identify the early adopters. There are 89,000 municipalities in the U.S., so there is a rich pool of prospective clients to find the early adopters. Leery jurisdictions will eventually catch on and become your best customers.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.