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Nassau County, N.Y., Opens Up Finances Amid Corruption Scandal

With a former county executive currently on trial for financial malfeasance, the New York City area county’s new comptroller is using technology to promote transparency and establish open data best practices.

With a former county executive currently on trial for alleged financial malfeasance, Nassau County, N.Y., Comptroller Jack Schnirman has turned to technology to establish transparency and rebuild public trust in government.

Schnirman, who took office in 2018, campaigned in part on a promise to open up and modernize the county’s finances in response to a history of scandals, and now he has taken a big step in that direction with Nassau County Open Checkbook. Powered by Socrata Open Expenditures, it launched in recent weeks and is essentially a platform that allows users — be they members of the public, the media, or public servants themselves — to see how the county is spending its money, down to the individual transaction level. Schnirman described it as a stark contrast from how government spending in the county has traditionally been handled.

“It had really been a black box so to speak,” Schnirman said. “If you wanted information, you had to make a specific Freedom of Information Act request and almost be sent to an attic or basement to review boxes of files. There was no easy way to look at this information in a user-friendly format from a resident perspective, and from a user perspective it wasn’t much different.”   

Schnirman said establishing the open checkbook is the first step in a wide-spanning data-driven culture change. The work right now involves spreading awareness and encouraging users to dive into the platform's capabilities. His office has even set up an email address for residents and others to report inefficiencies they find.

“This is our starting place,” Schnirman said, “and we want to build from here.”

Plans call for slowly making more information available on the platform, including data sets that will enable viewing of county governance in a historical context. Nassau County is far from the only local government agency to use tech to foster transparency and by extension trust. Kevin Merritt, who is the president of the data and insights division for Socrata's parent company Tyler Technologies, said an increasing number of local governments across the country are making commitments to open data work.

The idea of an open checkbook that anyone can view online is one that has been embraced by a wide range of governments across different levels, from the state of Ohio to the city of Baton Rouge, La

As similar platforms become operational across the country, Merritt said more residents are beginning to expect their governments to follow suit.

“If anyone has seen a checkbook online from one government,” Merritt said, “they’re now asking their own government, ‘Hey, why isn’t our checkbook online?’”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.