By Erin Glanville
OpenGov To Bring Greater Financial Transparency To Menlo ParkUploaded: Feb 19, 2014
A picture is worth a thousand words. When Menlo Park launches its new city website in early April, it will have a new visual tool, courtesy of a Silicon Valley startup by the name of OpenGov. OpenGov provides software tools that enable users (the public, media, and internal city employees) to slice and dice the city's financial budgetary information into a clearer visual picture. The hope is that the ability to generate a clearer, more accessible, and user-friendly financial picture will lead to better decision making and accountability, faster identification of problem areas, and stronger public trust through greater openness and transparency.
Menlo Park's financial data is already public information, but it is not particularly user-friendly. Budget documents can be a challenge to locate on the city's current website, have a limited basis for year-over-year comparison, and are delivered in a classic rows and numbers format that leaves much of the analysis to the user. According to Clay Curtin, Assistant to the City Manager, who is project managing the development of the new Menlo Park website and the incorporation of the OpenGov "transparency portal," the new website will also have more granular data; budgets will include month-over-month reporting going back five years. This will provide department heads with greater visibility into their own budgets and spending. The rolling five years of history will also help put seasonal expenses in context. Users can export or download information and share the charts and graphs they find of interest via social media. One feature not currently planned for Menlo Park: reporting on individual salaries. OpenGov's reporting is based on Charts of Accounts and General Ledger data provided by the city, which do not include individual salaries. However, according to Chris Heggem of OpenGov, the software is capable of increased granularity should a municipality make the policy decision to publish more detailed salary information.
While cities utilizing OpenGov can choose to use it as an internal-only operational tool, OpenGov does not recommend that approach and Menlo Park plans to make everything available to the public with achieving greater transparency being their chief objective. When Curtin joined Menlo Park's staff in June of 2013, he came from the City of Manhattan Beach where he was the staff member to their Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Open Government. Upon arriving in Menlo Park, Curtin says he found a "willingness to embrace greater transparency," starting with utilizing OpenGov in the city's website revamp because "it provides such a great visual picture of what is going on."
A 'software as a service' offering (SaaS), OpenGov does not just benefit cities; their current customer base includes special districts and an eclectic grouping of organizations ranging from the Fresno State Student Association, to the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority and the California Land Commission. The company charges an annual subscription fee indexed to the budget size and desired feature package. According to Curtin, Menlo Park's annual subscription fee for OpenGov will come to $2800.
Residents wanting a sneak peak into the financial reporting tools that will be available with the relaunch of the city's new website (including the new transparency portal) can check out the City of Palo Alto which implemented an earlier vision of the OpenGov tool. The folks who developed OpenGov are being mum about future features and their product roadmap, but they have confirmed that the ability to compare a city to similar cities (geographically, size, etc.) for richer context is being given serious consideration. The company is currently collecting feedback from government partners and citizens. In fact, interested citizens can submit feedback through their website or by emailing them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"We want to make this software maximally useful and intuitive," states co-founder Nate Levine. "Our intent is to provide more access and understanding to government budgets and historical financial data. This information is important to decision-making and it can build trust and engagement with citizens. When everybody understands how a government operates, it improves the dialogue between the administration and the public."