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.