Small, Yet Transparent: Albany, Ore., Shows How It’s Done

The city of 50,000 people is an example that just because you’re a small government, doesn’t mean you can’t be on the cutting edge of technology.

Being on the cutting edge of technology is never easy for any organization, but it can be especially difficult for smaller governments.

For leaders in Albany, Ore., a city of just more than 50,000 people, serving the public and starting a transparent dialog meant opening city data in a clear, concise way while staying within the bounds of their limited financial means.

The end result of the extensive city effort was a publicly accessible online portal where constituents can view the latest budgets, daily updates to expenditure data and monitor the programs their tax dollars ultimately pay for.

Assistant City Manager and CIO Jorge Salinas said the city had been looking at an open data initiative as a means to make the local government more transparent for several years.

“The city of Albany has been involved in open data, I would say, for the last six years. We started back in 2009 with the homegrown application, where every financial transaction that the city made was pushed through this homegrown application,” he said. “After that we continued to evolve, and now we are at the point where we want to move our data to be more visual. We’ve taken that approach of trying to find the best breed of vendors out there that can help us achieve these goals.”

Through the municipality’s suite of online tools, citizens can now delve into how the city is allocating projects’ funding and spending taxpayer money.

Salinas said city expenditures are updated daily at the close of business and available for the public within a few hours of the upload, making the most current information available as quickly as possible.

“In our financial transparency piece of the whole picture, we decided to partner with Socrata, and we do a nightly push of [financial transaction] information up to the cloud,” he said. “Every transaction that the city makes by the end of business, a couple hours later that information will be available for citizens to review on our website.”

While there hasn’t been an overwhelming reaction from constituents, Salinas said other state and local governments as well as private organizations have taken notice of the city’s portal.

“The reaction [from the public] has been kind of quiet. It’s one of those things that you want to make sure your information is available out there and you’re transparent, but we haven’t gotten a lot of feedback in terms of how we’re doing or the information that we’re putting in there,” he said. “The short answer is that we haven’t gotten a lot of feedback from citizens, however other cities, other counties, other organizations and states have noticed and we’ve been getting a lot of questions about how we are doing it.”

Not only has Albany acted as a model for other jurisdictions, but the city has also received several awards for its open portal efforts, according to Salinas.

After the city’s data was published online, formatting it in a more digestible, visual way became the focus of staff and a third-party vendor. “We had to engage other departments to involve them in helping to fund this approach. There are always challenges because of the budget. We have a finite amount of dollars, and we have to make sure that those are used to provide services for the citizens. This is a piece of that where we are actually providing financial information for citizens to be able to view at any time.”

Salinas said this effort required considerable financial collaboration among all of the city’s departments to meet project needs under budgetary constraints. The collaborative approach also allowed leaders to manage and prioritize the needs of the transparency initiative against other vital projects.

When asked about the advice he gives to other organizations looking to develop their own transparency portal, Salinas said he urges anyone interested in an open data program to approach the project as a unified group to ensure departmental buy-in and avoid unnecessary surprises.

“These projects need to be a collaboration between the departments. In this particular project, being [financially transparent], we engaged our finance department and our IT department ahead of time just to make sure they were involved and knew what we were planning to do,” he said. “We didn’t want to surprise anyone by putting our financial books out there. We wanted to make sure there was buy-in from the different departments involved … to enable the city to provide better services.”

In addition to the all-inclusive information portal, Salinas said a strategic plan scorecard was also a major staff focus. The evaluative tool allows constituents to view the progress in high-value program areas in a simple, easy-to-read format.

Scorecards for public safety, economic health and government efficiency present Albany’s goals and progress in a clear “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” way against data from the previous fiscal year. This allows citizens to quickly assess whether various goals are being met.