This County Made Their Finances Transparent and You Can Too

It’s common knowledge that sometimes the sheer size of state and local government can make it hard to track how resources are being used. And it’s not surprising that taxpayers want to know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. A 2011 Gallup poll that found that American taxpayers believe that state governments waste 42 cents on the dollar, and local governments waste 38 cents on the dollar.

It’s obvious that some citizens perceive government to be a wasteful entity. We here at GovLoop know that isn’t true. But what is true is that most citizens have little understanding of how government spends their money — because it’s rarely displayed or explained anywhere clearly.

That’s where financial transparency comes in. More and more local governments are working to open up their financial data to give their citizens a better understanding of exactly how and where money is being spent. One of the latest governments to do so successfully is Montgomery County in the state of Maryland. And at our State & Local Innovators Virtual Summit on Wednesday, we learned just how they’re introducing financial transparency.

Karen Hawkins, the finance chief operating officer in Montgomery County, and Victoria Lewis, dataMontgomery project manager, spoke to the GovLoop audience about the history of financial transparency in their county, their current journey into open data, next steps they are planning, and best practices for others looking to introduce their own measures about open spending.

Montgomery County launched their initial open data program at the end of 2012 with datasets on employee salaries, restaurant inspections, traffic information, budget, spending and contract data, and more. But, as Hawkins noted, once they put the data out there, the county wasn’t seeing the sort of action on citizens accessing or using data sets that they had hoped for.

“So this is our new vision,” said Hawkins. “Progressing from just showing our budget and spending data to providing a way to do the following three things: promote understanding, improve access, and increase interaction.”

To do this, the county formed a partnership with Socrata, their open data platform vendor. Socrata provided knowledge on the open data platform and product development; Montgomery county was responsible for the strategic vision of what they wanted the end product to be.

Together, the team created a plan for three financial transparency sites. One is budgetMontgomery, which has launched and provides a view of our operating and capital improvement budgets; one is spendingMontgomery which is being worked on; and the next site they will work to deploy is contractsMontgomery.

Want to get to where Montgomery County is in terms of financial transparency? Hawkins and Lewis provided the necessary steps to help you out.

#1: Involve the community from the beginning
“We have found a lot of value in involving the community in our project,” Hawkins said. “We did this to get suggestions what type of data people would like to see and also get feedback on what has already been published to make our data sets even better. To do this we use open data town halls throughout the county and focus groups where we focus on a specific top like neighborhood crime, how we categorize our data sets, and what types of data people would like to see.”

#2: Create user personas of people who might want to use your data
Lewis explained the process involved in creating user personas. “First we used internal brainstorming on who we thought our users were and what data they might be interested in. But we realized that we shouldn’t be guessing. So we convened resident panels and asked them what they wanted to see in terms of data and they answers were: 1. How much money is being spent 2. Who is spending it 3. What were they spending on? We used that information to define our user personas – six key user types we thought we needed to make sure we always kept in mind as we went throughout the process.”

#3: Think carefully about privacy considerations
“Confidential sensitive data is one of the most important considerations,” said Lewis. “Eventually we made the decision to include confidential data but encrypt it. Make sure to involve business owners and their legal counsel from the start.”

#4: Start with the right team
It’s not just about data folks, Hawkins said. “It’s about getting everybody on a team from the start — everybody from finance, programs, systems, and legal that have the right knowledge. Also make sure you have a dedicated project lead to bring it all together.”

#5: Focus
Lewis and Hawkins said it’s important to not get distracted from your original goals and users. “Constantly keep the business needs you’re trying to meet in focus and working towards those. That also means really importantly defining the key user personas and continually referring back to those key user personas throughout the process.”

#6: Use plain language
You may have become very familiar with complicated financial terms — but it’s likely your audience base is not. Considering including on your open spending site a glossary of financial and accounting terms that users can refer to.

#7: Involve business owners — the right ones — from the beginning
“Engage business oweners from the beginning,” Lewis said. “We first reached out to our finance contacts in businesses – but we should have reached out to program people or a combo of finance and program people. We also should have started from the beginning and manged their expectations

#8: Manage expectations
“This was probably the most important success factor,” Lewis said. “With all that are involved – external users and constituents, focus groups, internal stakeholders, executive management, business owners — be very clear that just because they’re asking for something it doesn’t mean we will be able to provide it, but we will listen.”

You can follow @datamontgomery for details on when their new spending transparency site will launch, and click here to watch the archive of the presentation. Have you opened data or created financial transparency in your local government? Tell us your tips in the comments below.

GovLoop recently hosted its State and Local Innovators Virtual Summit, an all-day, virtual event with six different online trainings, networking opportunities and resources to help you do your job better. Be sure to read the other recaps here.

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