Editor’s Note: This month, McKinney, Texas, became the first municipality in Texas to receive all five transparency stars from the Texas Comptroller’s distinguished Transparency Stars program. McKinney’s team has successfully used the OpenGov Smart Government Platform™ within its organization and has shared its thought leadership with other governments looking to develop stronger open data initiatives. We jumped at the chance to chat with McKinney’s Senior Financial Analyst, Trevor Minyard, about how the city achieved its five-star Texas Transparency Stars rating.
First, from the entire OpenGov team: congratulations to the McKinney team for your well-deserved five-star Texas Transparency Stars rating. Tell us about when you heard the news.
We received the five-star notification on Thursday, April 6, when we got confirmation from the Comptroller’s office. Only one other municipality in the state had achieved four stars, and we wanted to be the first to earn all five. We made it first, and remain the only five-star city or government entity in the state.
This achievement is specifically due to diligent work from one of our accountants Xochilt Medina and Finance Director Trudy Mathis.
That unique designation is certainly validation that McKinney is doing many things right. Can you describe what the five-star achievement means to the city’s stakeholders, both internal and external?
Absolutely. I’ll start first with the Council.
The Council has given the staff goals through its strategic planning process. Two major goals that impact the finance area are 1) operational excellence and 2) a financially sound government. The Council expects us to meet those goals, and that we’ll have a financially transparent government across a number of measures.
Having these goals started us down the road of offering our information online, and led to us using the OpenGov platform. In addition the new state Comptroller’s robust transparency program pushed us towards the five -star achievement, and the distinction has validated our commitment to transparency from the top down.
From the staff perspective, we immediately set a goal for ourselves – being the first in the state to get all five stars. Accomplishing that is a nice achievement, but it’s not the end. We have a continuous commitment to transparency. We’re not just resting on having a great platform or meeting certain metrics. Our job is still to communicate to Council that we are continuing to push for increased transparency in the most visible ways.
And that’s where we intersect with our citizens.
This recognition demonstrates that we are doing everything we can to make information not just available, but easy to understand. We don’t want to just present information, we want it to be relevant.
I think it’s important to mention our Mayor’s sentiments here because his words touch on all of these areas. Mayor Loughmiller said, “The City Council and I have long embraced public transparency, and we are proud of this recognition and the efforts by our city staff in making it happen. That our community has more ways than ever to be engaged, obtain factual data and information, and stay informed is great news for McKinney. Every citizen deserves open government.”
For those unfamiliar with the Transparency Stars program in Texas, can you talk a little about the stars and the program’s requirements?
Of course. The Comptroller’s program recognizes local government entities that provide easy online access to important financial data. McKinney earned stars in the areas of Traditional Finances, Contracts and Procurement, Economic Development, Public Pensions, and Debt Obligations. Our City Manager Paul Grimes said the Texas Comptroller set forth some of the most rigorous standards for financial transparency for local governments that he has seen.
While the Transparency Stars program encourages greater access to a wide range of local information in those five categories, it also highlights government efforts to provide citizens with the tools to better understand and analyze that information. For example, to receive a star, check registers can’t just be placed online. They also must be searchable and allow users to easily perform analysis on the data.
Our partnership with OpenGov really helped us achieve the stars.
The first star, Traditional Finances, for example, entails all the things most governments partake in. It’s the foundational step, and all entities have to meet the metrics of this first star before applying for the other four. We accomplished a good bit of this foundational star through references to our OpenGov platform. For instance, we needed to show monthly reports, and we easily provided the Comptroller’s office with the link to our interactive monthly financials. Through OpenGov, we were able to similarly reference links to interactive vendor check registers as well as payroll reports.
Debt obligations is another area where we referenced OpenGov. Through the platform, we were able to showcase our interactive financial report that includes where we have obligations such as revenue bonds, and outstanding debt service, as well as details of our debt retirement schedule.
In the other areas, the availability of historical data proved useful, such as our ability to show how we are funding pension liability not just in the present, but also how we funded it in the past.
(Left to Right): Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Deputy City Manager Jose Madrigal, Chief Financial Officer Mark Holloway, Members of the Finance Department. Source: City of McKinney, TX
With this five-star transparency designation and demonstrated use of open data technology tools, you certainly seem to be doing your part to make information accessible. How do you ensure that your citizens are aware of, and taking advantage of, the available information?
It’s a matter of communication more than anything.
We can be as comprehensive as possible in making information available, but making it palatable is the key step for actual engagement. We have a very involved citizenry – particularly online. They follow the city’s social media site, interact via e-mail, and also come to speak during Council meetings.
Just last Thursday, our Communications Department hosted an all-day Twitter initiative regarding the budget as part of its “#SeeMcKinneyWithMe” online series. This was to get out in front of our first public budget meeting. We also utilize our online platform that allows citizens to assign “dots” to departments they want to see funded through the budget. This shows us their priorities.
It’s really a matter of utilizing tools and building up layers. We use OpenGov to provide information – our five-star recognition validates that we’re doing a good job at that. We then proactively provide opportunities for citizens to get involved through interactive, online forums. We provide opportunities for Q&A online, as well as a digital workshop that allows users to “allocate” resources to the areas they are passionate about. There is a lot of interaction.
For finance officers around the country, what should be the key takeaway around McKinney’s success?
The key message is that cities that are committed to transparency are cities that leverage technology for transparency and engagement.
The transparency stars themselves were not really the focus of our efforts. The achievement was more a notch in our belt. Cities should not buy a product to earn a star. Rather, cities that are committed to transparency are also ones that effectively utilize innovative tools.
In McKinney, from the top down, we want financially sound government and operational excellence continuously by enhancing our internal “toolkit.” We began online financial reporting through OpenGov, and we continue to make it more robust by adding, for example, capital improvement maps, weaving in clearly-articulated performance measures, and engaging the citizenry. All of these are the building blocks in the totality of being transparent.
McKinney, Texas, is a true leader in effective transparency, and it’s inspiring that your focus is on continued innovation. With your forward-looking focus, what can we expect next?
Well, thank you for calling us a leader. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the remarks of our state Comptroller, Glenn Hegar, who said, “McKinney is setting an example that I hope all local government entities in Texas will follow.”
We definitely do plan to continue to make our data accessible and understandable in increasingly visible ways. Our next area of focus is really on performance measures. We want to clearly link outcomes to the inputs that we’re giving to the community. We want to use those outcomes to validate and explain how we are completing the Council’s strategic plan. We also hope to get more people involved in the budget process by providing them with the tools to truly understand the underlying finances. We want to bring the citizens along with us as we go through the process. And, if the Comptroller decides to add a sixth star to the program, we look forward to being the first to achieve all six!
Trevor Minyard is a Senior Financial Analyst with the City of McKinney, Texas. Check out McKinney’s public-facing OpenGov open data portal.
Featured Photo (Left to Right): City Manager Paul Grimes, Mayor Brian Loughmiller, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Council member Tracy Rath, Council member Rainey Rogers (Source: City of McKinney, TX)