Leading a Successful Financial Transparency Initiative

Over the past decade, citizen demand for transparent government information has dramatically increased. In fact, in a poll conducted by Vision Internet among local government leaders, over 90% believed open data and financial transparency would have a significant role in their work by 2020 (this is less than five years from now!). It was only until very recently (2014) that all 50 states joined the movement and built financially transparent websites. Other cities, counties, schools and special districts nationwide have follow suit, but there is still much to be done. Local governments must find ways to make the most of the technological resources they have in order to clearly portray the information that citizens are looking for. A recent report by OpenGov names six best practices for online transparency.

Let’s take a look:

1.    Show comprehensive data.
Your financial transparency site must be comprehensive; basically, it should answer more questions than it creates. To make this happen, multiple years of data must be available for review, and it must be viewable through multiple views and/or filters. Adding historical data with multiple views will help users identify trends and different perspectives within the data. OpenGov suggests that the data include expenses, revenue, equity (ideally), and transactional information. With all of this together, citizens are able to see a bridge between specific expenses and budget impact, and departments come more clearly into focus when viewed as part of the larger organization.

2.    Create a one-stop shop for information.
Keeping all financial data in one place gives users a full view without the need for specialized knowledge of the government’s structure. Many governments maintain their data on different documents on different webpages, which can be very confusing and frustrating for users. OpenGov recommends creating a landing page with a FAQ section and links to all relevant budget and financial documents.

3.    Present data in an inviting and intuitive format.
The whole purpose of having a transparency site is to take raw data and mold it into meaningful information for your citizens. Users come to your website because they want to know more about their government, right? Make it easy for them—make your data easy to explore, search, sort and analyze.  A powerful search engine and strong data filters will help save users time when sorting through the data. Don’t forget to the FAQ section—organize your information so that the most frequently-asked questions are addressed first.

4.    Provide access to financial information anytime, anywhere.
OpenGov advises governments to host their transparency sites through cloud-based software. It is more cost-effective (at least 25-50% savings), it is more secure (no anti-virus protections necessary!), it will save your IT staff time (no more system upgrades or storage hardware to worry about), and it is easy to integrate into other data systems. 

5.    Make your site useful to staff.
A transparency site isn’t only for your citizens—it is also a necessary tool for staff! Your site should enhance staff’s ability to collaborate more effectively, save time, and answer staff questions, in real time. Imagine sitting in a council meeting and being caught off-guard by an on-the-spot question. Your transparency site should be available anywhere there is an internet connection, so the answer to the question should be easily found and provided without a problem.

6.    Use your data to drive stakeholder engagement.
Your transparency initiative will not succeed if nobody knows it exists! It must be promoted—through social and traditional media, at council meeting, town halls and other special events—whatever works best to get the word out to your citizens.

As the demand for local government transparency increases, local governments must identify the right path and exact needs for financial transparency, while also maintaining a sustainable, cost-effective IT strategy. Remember, everyone will have access to your data—your citizens, elected officials, journalists, government entities, other organizations—so make sure that it is a helpful tool for everyone. 

To download the whole report, click here