Category Archives: Customer Stories

How Capitola Improved Council-Administration Relations With OpenGov

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Mark Welch serves as finance director for the City of Capitola, CA.

The ballots have been tallied. The yard signs have gone. The town halls are over.

2016’s local government election is behind us, but finance officers will feel its effects in the months and years ahead. New and returning members alike will seek to enact policy agendas and fulfill campaign pledges. And because every policy involves a financial investment, finance officers will find themselves responsible for figuring out how to implement the new council’s policies.

Many will be reasonable. Invest in repairing roads. Pay first responders well. Clean the parks. But then there are the inevitable others. Every year, councils propose pledges that do not reflect financial reality:

Repeal a sales tax that funds bloated salaries!

Slash pension expenses!

Cut travel costs!

I do not believe candidates intentionally mislead citizens. These public servants have decided to step up for their communities and their representation is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society. However, like most citizens, council candidates and members may not have the most informed knowledge of local government operations and finance. Financial illiteracy breeds honest mistakes during the campaign. In turn, this breeds conflict with the administration when it comes time to craft and implement policy.

In the City of Capitola, California, we believe good relationships with our governing body lead to better policies and, ultimately, better services for citizens. I want to share how, during the recent election, we took preemptive steps to educate and engage with candidates. I then will explain how we improved relationships with the existing governing body – elevating the quality of public debate and building trust with staff and citizens – and why this will help us engage new elected officials.

Educating Candidates Before the Election

It was important to us to empower candidates to make feasible promises to their constituents. Therefore, we held an orientation for council candidates after the filing deadline passed. Candidates had lacked an easy tool to learn about and explain financial issues to voters, so they often conducted their own analyses.

These ‘self-explorations’ of financial data displayed in PDFs and often spreadsheets often didn’t end well. Because our financials were not presented clearly, candidates accidentally made incorrect claims about budgets, revenues, and finances. Newly elected members would come in with an incomplete or incorrect ideas, and propose policies they would not support if they understood financial realities.

Our elected officials – and citizens – deserved better. That’s why we decided to hold a candidate orientation. However, if we had relied solely on our financial system to prepare the necessary reports, time constraints would have prevented us from giving candidates the insights they needed.

It would have taken almost two full workdays to build the reports that explain issues candidates tend to care about, such as overtime across the entire organization. I would have been forced to download multiple reports from our financial system, combine them, calculate the right subtotals, determine the correct classifications, and prepare the necessary charts and graphs. And this is for every question a candidate might conceivably ask.

Fortunately, Capitola had purchased and implemented OpenGov, a cloud-based reporting and transparency tool. To generate the overtime report we needed in OpenGov, we simply filtered data by expense type, checked the overtime box, and selected all departments. OpenGov automatically generated charts as we went along. Instead of having to drill vertically into our Chart of Accounts, we could mix and match elements across departments and funds. It took just 15 minutes to build the all of the reports we needed.

Candidates loved having this information available both during the orientation and for their own use afterwards. Because OpenGov is interactive, we could answer any follow-up questions in real-time. Candidates also reported back that they were able to learn a lot more on their own – leading to more informed campaign platforms and councilmembers.

Engaging Existing Councilmembers

When the new council is sworn in, OpenGov will help us engage every member. We’ve had great success with the existing council.

Before OpenGov, although we generally enjoyed good relationships with our council, there were moments when trust broke down. For example, councilmembers would sometimes not trust the reports staff gave them. And because it often took over a day to generate a report, councilmembers could not receive immediate answers to follow-up questions if we hadn’t already pulled the report – reducing the information available to a debate and eroding trust between the administration and the council.

Since we implemented OpenGov, I’ve noticed a concrete improvement in our relationship with the city council. Because of OpenGov’s intuitive interface and visualizations, councilmembers use OpenGov to validate the numbers we give them, answer questions on issues such historical and projected future pension contributions, and inform their policy discussions. And they even use the tool to highlight successes to citizens.

Based on this success, I think the new governing body will benefit greatly from OpenGov just as its members did during the election.

Moving Toward Better Policy

During my time in government, I’ve seen dedicated councilmembers and staff unite to make the community a better place to live and work. A functional council-administration relationship – grounded in trust and mutual respect – can really move the needle on critical policy issues.

But, as we’ve seen, building and maintaining these relationships isn’t easy. It requires engagement both during and after the election. This engagement will always depend primarily on people, but OpenGov’s software is proving to be an indispensable ally. With OpenGov, our relationship with elected officials will benefit both sides – and Capitola’s citizens.

This article was originally published in the November 2016 CSMFO Magazine.

Mark Welch serves as finance director for the City of Capitola, CA. Before joining Capitola, Mark was Santa Clara’s Principal Financial Analyst and Assistant to the City Manager for the City of Sierra Vista. Mark holds an MPA from the University of Oregon and a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

How to Engage Citizens With Your Budget Transparency Video

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If governments could win Oscars for budget transparency videos, then Anoka County, Minnesota would be on everyone’s shortlist. The county’s video certainly caught our eye.

The project historically took Anoka’s Budget Department and Public Information Team about a month’s worth of work. But not this year.

Anoka finished the project in just two days using OpenGov’s Saved Views (links to views that answer questions) and interactive charts. OpenGov eliminated the manual labor involved in compiling information for every graphic in the video.

Creating a budget video brings at least three key benefits to your organization:

  • Explain complex yet important issues to citizens
  • Show potential employees that your government is technologically savvy
  • Give staff and managers a broad overview of the budget

We loved Anoka County’s video. You can watch it below, and by the time you’re done, we think you will love it too!

Here’s the structure that makes Anoka’s video so compelling for citizens:

1. State the mission: The video stars Budget Director Patti Hetrick. She briefly introduces herself and describes how Anoka County strives to provide services in a “respectful, innovative, and fiscally responsible” manner. Hetrick emphasizes how seriously Anoka takes the responsibility of spending the viewer’s dollars.

2. Demonstrate value: “During this video,” Hetrick then explains, “we will answer some questions that are commonly asked by our citizens.” Show citizens why the video is relevant, and they will pay attention.

3. Provide a high-level overview: Hetrick shows citizens how Anoka County’s budget has two main parts: revenues and expenses. OpenGov displays government-wide, multi-year expense and revenue data on the screen at the same time – driving the story and bolstering Hetrick’s narrative.

4. Use visual signposts: Anoka used Saved Views to signal new sections. For example, Anoka has separate Saved Views for “What Does Anoka County Spend on Public Safety?” and “What do we spend for Child Protection, Behavioral Health, and Financial Assistance?” These views correspond to sections in the video.

5. Contextualize each section: It’s not enough to just read off the numbers on the screen. Instead, Hetrick shares the story behind the numbers. What were the tradeoffs? Why were certain decisions made? This information helps citizens understand the numbers displayed on the screen.

6. Conclude with a call-to-action: Anoka concludes by directing citizens to OpenGov to learn more about Anoka County’s financials. This saves the county time too: it hasn’t had a single Freedom of Information request for financial information thus far and, according to Hetrick, Anoka would normally have around ten by now.

And finally, keep it clear and short. Let’s face it – people have short attention spans. Microsoft found the average is around eight seconds. The county conveys only essential information in its video; citizens can always go to OpenGov for more information.

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Santa Fe Rebuilds Citizen Trust With OpenGov

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Santa Fe pleases residents and tourists alike with bustling farmers’ markets, historic trails, and delightful art galleries. Santa Fe provides residents these benefits alongside a high quality of life. But these successes don’t occur on their own. From ensuring clean water flows through pipes to extinguishing fires, Santa Fe’s government strives to provide citizens with the best possible service.

And this week, Santa Fe’s leaders added a critical service to its operations. A service that builds citizens’ trust in their civic institutions. A service that reinforces Santa Fe’s efforts to be a government of, by, and for the people. A service that connects City Hall to its “just Google it” constituents. This week, Santa Fe launched a comprehensive transparency website that gives citizens unprecedented access to – and understanding of – how Santa Fe spends public money.

OpenGov’s Santana Shorty shows the City of Santa Fe how to use OpenGov.

It’s no secret Santa Fe needed to rebuild some public trust. The city faced a budget deficit of $15 million and was forced to slash services. Officials struggled to explain both the deficit and issues surrounding a $30 million bond program for park improvement. Mayor Javier Gonzales described during a press conference how City Hall grappled with a “public not really knowing what led to the deficit.”

Santa Fe’s leaders could have done nothing. But by refusing to act, the government would have reinforced the apathy and mistrust that cloud too many citizens’ views of their civic institutions. This outcome was unacceptable for Santa Fe’s elected officials and administration.

The city’s leaders believe in the power of technology. They believe that using innovations that transformed industries from healthcare, to commerce, to finance, Santa Fe can rebuild the trust it lost over the next year and give citizens and staff unprecedented insights into financials and performance. And we agree with them. That’s why we are thrilled to partner with the city of Santa Fe.

The city’s transparency portal has all the marks of an effective site. Citizens can explore several years of budget and actual data through interactive charts and visualizations. Since OpenGov understands the city’s financial accounting structure, citizens can pivot across funds and departments with the click of a mouse. Santa Fe also recognizes financial data can be daunting. So the city took full advantage of OpenGov’s Saved Views capabilities that directly answer common questions such as “Where does the money go by department?” and “What are the city’s historical expenses by expense type?”.

The future looks bright for Santa Fe’s government. Transparency alone won’t overcome deficits or restore services, but without public trust, any sustainable solution would be impossible. We are committed to working with Santa Fe as this innovative city expands its use of OpenGov and uses data to make evidence-based decisions on the toughest problems.

Congratulations Santa Fe, and we’re looking forward to what comes next!

Visit Santa Fe’s OpenGov site

The City of Lewiston Pioneers Transparency in Idaho With OpenGov

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In 1863, the City of Lewiston, Idaho became the first capital of the Idaho territory. This week, the city reaffirmed its status as a trailblazer when it launched its OpenGov Transparency portal – the first city in Idaho to do so.

The City of Lewiston’s leaders understand a critical fact about 21st century government: citizens, elected officials, and staff benefit from making complex financial information understandable to a wide audience. This transparency enhances decisions, builds public trust, and most important, shows residents how the city spends public money.

“As the first city in the State of Idaho to be an OpenGov client, providing a high level of transparency and openness, we are proud to be a leader in the State when it comes to assisting the public with financial data,” says Dan Marsh, Administrative Services Director.

The City of Lewiston is empowering citizens with insights into government spending back to FY 2012, transactions, and current spending and revenues across departments and funds.

But the city does not stop there. Lewiston proactively answers common public questions with OpenGov’s Saved Views – a feature that lets the government bookmark answers to common questions. For example, with the click of a mouse, citizens can see how much the city collects in property taxes every year, how much the City of Lewiston spends on salaries every year, and which expenses the General Fund has paid for during the current year.

Visionary cities like the City of Lewiston prove that communities across the country are committed to serving their citizens in the digital era.

We’re excited to work with the City of Lewiston, and congratulate its leaders and citizens on its step forward for citizen engagement.

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Connecting Anoka County: Five Steps to Improve Management Reporting

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Led by a seven-member Board of Commissioners, we’ve decreased our levy several times since 2012 – saving taxpayers about $40 million. But although our levies change, our mission remains the same: to serve citizens in a respectful, innovative, and fiscally responsible manner. I’m Anoka’s Budget Director and my team works to empower other departments to achieve this mission.

It isn’t always easy. Tightening budgets ($40 million of savings comes at a cost), retiring baby boomers, and competing priorities force us to operate as effectively as possible. This means we must share data and insights across the county and with citizens. In other words, we need robust and accessible management reporting.

Anoka County’s financial reporting needs are comprehensive, yet unique to each program. Complex financial systems make it more difficult for departments to run ad hoc reports. Our managers need high-level information to monitor their services; in addition, some of our citizens want detailed budget information. Due to a new ERP finance system implementation and new website software, some of our current reporting tools no longer function.

For example, our Public Information team spent hours putting county fees on our website in a searchable database; but when the county changed systems and websites, our reports were effectively disabled. Our current reporting infrastructure allows neither managers nor citizens to view real-time information.

We began solving this problem in 2015 by introducing standardized, formal management reporting across the county. Although we have more work to do, we’re excited about our progress and success thus far. We’re following the five steps I describe below, and I think other governments looking to improve management reporting could benefit by following them too:

Step 1. Pick the right tool: We have separate financial, CIP, and budgeting systems. Trained accountants can use these tools effectively because they are in and out of these systems on a daily basis. Our accountants will continue to use these tools for transaction logging and some complex financial reports. However, we needed a new reporting tool for our management team and our citizens.

This is where OpenGov, a cloud-based reporting and transparency tool, comes in. OpenGov unites data across funds and departments to run detailed, interactive reports. It also saves us time – it took hours to build and update charts, but now OpenGov generates the charts we need in seconds. We believe OpenGov will remove a massive obstacle by improving the user experience, allowing managers to easily run their own reports and quickly answer questions.

Step 2. Demonstrate value to build interest: It is important to show departments how improved management reporting could streamline their work and save time.

Annual Reports present the perfect opportunity. Many departments spend time preparing annual financial and performance reports. They pull data from our accounting and budget systems, then manually format reports in Excel and create and update graphics.

OpenGov transforms this workflow in three key ways. First, it removes the need for us to pull data for each department – it’s already in OpenGov. Second, it saves departments hours of time by automating report generation. Third, users can log into OpenGov from any computer, on any device, eliminating complex VPNs or a need to be in the office. This certainly caught managers’ attention.

We are pursuing Steps 3-5 simultaneously. I suggest you do the same, as each step’s benefits reverberate across the county and help push the other steps along.

Step 3. Work with departments to get them up and running: We ask departments which reports they run and which they’d like, increasing their investment in the initiative’s success. Each department has a different dynamic, so we decided to start with some departments then move on to others. Depending on your organization, you may decide to launch each department at the same time or go one at a time.

We began with our Parks Department. This department can now track monthly general fund revenues, expenses, visitors, and fees metrics in OpenGov, running reports from the tool as well. Our goal is to help other departments to utilize this tool to save them time.

Step 4. Engage the Board of Commissioners: Anoka’s Budget Department reports to the Finance Committee, comprised of four commissioners. The committee wants our citizens to have revenue and expense information at their fingertips – OpenGov makes this easier. We can explain budgetary tradeoffs and discuss challenges and opportunities that arise throughout the year. We are working with OpenGov as a tool to unify our budget process. It’s easier to get other departments on board as commissioners grow to depend on intuitive management reporting.

Step 5. Embrace transparency: Most reports ultimately go public. OpenGov lets us publish interactive reports to a transparency portal and this has paid off for us: we’d normally receive ten or more Financial Information requests by this point in the year. Thanks to OpenGov allowing the community to access information directly, we have not received a single request in 2016.

We face a lot of challenges, like most government entities, particularly the upcoming retirement of baby boomers who make up a large part of our workforce. We’re unlikely to re-fill every position, but by working smarter with technology to share insights and make informed decisions with data, we can serve our citizens in a respectful, innovative, and fiscally responsible manner. It’s our mission!

Read the Administrator’s Guide to Data-Driven Decisions to learn more about how to use reporting across your organization.

Patti Hetrick is the Budget Director for Anoka County, the fourth largest county in Minnesota. She entered public service eleven years ago after holding multiple positions in private sector auditing and consulting. Patti graduated from Luther College with degrees in Accounting and International Business. Anoka County received an Award of Excellence from the GFOA in 2012 for a “Video that Brings the Budgeting Process to Life for its citizens.”

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Washington, DC Embraces Financial Transparency

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Photo Credit: Sean Pavone

Congratulations, Washington, DC!

Last Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched an OpenGov Transparency portal as part of the District’s InnoMAYtion initiative to use “technology as a tool for innovation across government.” Civic trust and accountability can now grow as citizens learn about DC’s finances by exploring budgets, revenues, expenses, and capital projects with interactive reports. This is a big step forward for Washington, DC – and it reaffirms two important lessons local governments teach us every day.

First, despite overwhelming fixation on federal affairs, local governments have a pivotal role in our democracy:

Billions of people watch Washington. The federal government debates and affects global war and peace, healthcare, the environment, infrastructure, education, jobs, and more. Citizens need an effective federal government, and this November, millions of citizens – including local government leaders and staff – will elect the Representatives, Senators, and President who will guide America.

But no matter who wins in November, no matter which foreign policies the White House adopts, and no matter a contentious debate’s outcome, all federal officials and employees depend on Washington, DC’s local services. They need roads, schools, clean water, sewers, fire protection, and police just like every other community in America.

This interdependence highlights an obvious point not raised enough in national discourse: all levels of government, although they sometimes argue and work at cross-purposes, embark on a mutual effort to provide services for citizens.

When it comes to our most pressing challenges, the federal government certainly must help develop solutions, but citizens will demand action primarily from local governments because cities, counties, schools, and special districts operate ‘closest to home.’ Calls for action grow louder every year as public policy problems grow and evolve. Consider the following examples:

Local governments serve on the frontlines, and they need to be ready – ready to operate as efficiently as possible to provide optimized services, ready to collaborate with state and federal agencies, ready to show citizens how investments of public money address a community’s most urgent problems.

This is where initiatives like Mayor Bowser’s InnoMAYtion come in. Technological innovation within government equips organizations with the tools necessary to operate efficiently and engage citizens by demonstrating concrete and quantifiable ROI. We’re excited to see similar efforts springing up in big and small organizations across the country and eagerly anticipate these programs’ results.

We’re confident governments equipped with innovative technology and guided by visionary leaders can craft and implement solutions to the challenges described above and others, enabling our civic institutions to thrive in the 21st-century.

This brings us to the second lesson both Washington, DC’s InnoMAYtion initiative and other governments’ innovation efforts reinforce. Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” We’d paraphrase him and say,

“Reports of our civic institutions’ decline are greatly exaggerated.”

Visit DC’s Open Budget portal!

City of Tallahassee, Florida Launches OpenGov Transparency Site

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Photo Credit: Sean Pavone

We’re excited to welcome the City of Tallahassee, Florida to the OpenGov platform! This week, the city launched its public transparency site and received local news coverage. Tallahassee seeks to help citizens understand revenues and expenses, answer common questions, and drive public engagement. The city’s OpenGov site highlights important information with Saved Views such as:

  • What is the Tallahassee Police Department Budget Plan?
  • What are the major revenue sources for StarMetro?
  • What are the revenues that support the General Fund?

Saved Views are key to an effective transparency site, and Tallahassee takes this to heart. Focusing on the first example, the site gives residents an overview of the Police Department’s Budget Plan. Clicking on the Saved View takes citizens to an overview of departmental expenses:

Citizens can then explore more and dig deeper. For example, users can see how police expenses have changed over time by selecting a different chart type. Expenses for the Northern Patrol Sector have increased dramatically since 2012-2013:

Alternatively, users can view police expenses by expense type, then drill into Personnel expenses. Click the filter tab on the left of the screen and select the perspective you need:

Tallahassee launched its OpenGov site with a landing page and a compelling tutorial video:

Source: The City of Tallahassee

We congratulate Tallahassee on its launch! Check out Tallahassee’s OpenGov site to see how the city engages citizens with budget transparency.

Montgomery County, PA uses OpenGov to Uncover Internal Insights and Engage the Public

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Credit: Montgomery County

Overcoming Budgetary Challenges

The 815,000 residents of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania form a vibrant and diverse community. Densely populated urban areas combine with farms and open land to power an economy dependent on health sciences, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, IT, agriculture, and retail. The county’s government serves both remarkably wealthy and impoverished areas.

Montgomery County’s Chief Finance Officer, Uri Monson, joined Montgomery in 2012 to address the county’s serious budgetary issues. Previous officials drained reserves from $100 million to $23 million, imposed frequent operating deficits — one year was as high as $27 million —, and dramatically increased debt and service payments by issuing long-term fixed debt. Montgomery County’s budget was a mere twelve pages long, with handwritten page numbers and just two columns with last year’s budget and the current budget; there were no actuals. The budget did not even account for all necessary expenses; it failed to budget staff for a new prison wing opened in October 2011. And when the budget did include line items for various expenses, the numbers in the public budget did not match the county’s accounting system.

The newly elected commissioners directed the County’s Senior Staff to achieve a fiscally responsible budget, and present it in a transparent fashion. Montgomery adopted a zero-based budget model the first year, reduced the county’s debt, and refilled reserve funds. As the county’s budget recovered, Mr. Monson and Montgomery’s commissioners looked for ways to increase internal insights into resource allocation while engaging the public. In June 2014, Montgomery purchased OpenGov Intelligence both to provide public administrators with actionable, data-driven insights for the budget process and to engage the public.

California Water District Embraces Transparency with OpenGov

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The eighty-three mile Santa Clara River — one of the most prominent rivers in Southern California — flows leisurely through the Santa Clarita Valley as it runs its course to the Pacific. Living alongside the river’s upper watershed, thousands of residents in the Santa Clarita Valley contribute to Los Angeles County’s thriving economy and unique culture.

Santa Clarita, like the rest of Southern California, depends on a water distribution system that imports water from the north via the California Aqueduct. This water distribution system — comprised of two large treatment plants, three major pump stations, three water storage facilities and over 45 miles of large diameter transmission pipelines — is run by the Castaic Lake Water Agency (CLWA).

CLWA began looking for ways to use new technologies to connect with constituents; water is a hot-button issue in drought-parched Southern California and citizens have an interest in ensuring their water district is efficiently managed. After considering several options, CWLA chose OpenGov to revolutionize how it connects with constituents.

The agency has embraced transparency for awhile by putting financial documents on its website, but OpenGov enables CLWA to dynamically display information, fostering a new visual experience. CLWA’s General Manager, Dan Masnada, explains that the transition to OpenGov “allows the Agency to stay current with instantaneous-trending technology, similar to that of social media.”

CLWA plans to employ OpenGov to broaden its outreach to constituents and showcase its hard work. Masnada continues:

“With the appealing, interactive graphic displays of the Agency’s historical financial information, we may be better able to reach a new demographic market from the way this information is displayed, which can only help to further educate and empower our residents of the Santa Clarita Valley”

OpenGov empowers Masnada and his staff to tell Santa Clarita Valley residents some powerful stories. Users can begin by visualizing historical expenditures by department.

Users can also visualize revenues and CLWA can pre-save reports or “views” to tell constituents a story:

Constituents may want to learn more about the composition of property tax revenues. With the click of a button, users can explore property tax revenue sources:

CLWA strives to fulfill residents’ water needs, and it is not alone. Communities create special districts to meet specific local needs. Many perform a single function such as fire protection, sewage or water systems, pest abatement, or cemetery management. Community service districts may provide a single or many different services. All districts are accountable to their voters and customers; they prepare budgets and financial statements, they are audited annually, and must follow many other legal requirements imposed on all public entities.

Technologies such as OpenGov that are revolutionizing city, county, and state performance and transparency can also provide unique value to special districts across the nation such as CLWA. For example, some of the ways OpenGov can empower special districts include:

  1. Easy installation without special programming or IT involvement in most cases.
  2. Current, accurate and comprehensive reporting for internal staff.
  3. Graphical reporting designed to share with legislators for improved decision making.
  4. Share the data that matters most to the community.
  5. Inclusion of historical data in reporting for better trend analysis and budgeting.
  6. Significant time-savings on reporting and information sharing.

See how CLWA uses OpenGov to engage with constituents.

Northglenn, CO Finance Office a Trailblazer of Operational Reporting

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Credit: City of Northglenn

Pioneers in a Pioneer State

The tight-knit community of Northglenn, CO is situated on the front range of the Rocky Mountains, just fifteen minutes north of the booming city of Denver. With beautiful places to hike and bike in the summer, access to world-class skiing in the winter, and a thriving business community, the citizens of Northglenn lead mile-high quality lives.

Jason Loveland has spent the last six years promoting economic growth and development in Northglenn as Director of Finance. Thanks to Mr. Loveland, Northglenn was the first city in Colorado to use the OpenGov platform. Mr. Loveland continues to innovate in Colorado by working with his staff and OpenGov to create unique reports for internal use to increase efficiency and make more data-driven decisions.


Reporting Non-Financial Data

To help gain better visibility into the city’s water usage, Loveland created a report in OpenGov that displays data on water consumption and production dating back to 1989. Loveland is the first OpenGov customer to create this report. Since it gathers data from sensors in the pipes, it is also one of the first “Internet of Things” use cases of OpenGov.

With Loveland’s report, the city can view water production by season over the last twenty-six years, enabling it to make more informed decisions about acquiring water rights. The city can also view consumption by building type, such as single-family unit, multi-family apartment, and commercial office, which facilitates better forecasting of the city’s water revenue.