Earlier this month, eighteen public sector Hoosiers from eight local Indiana governments gathered for an OpenGov user session in Westfield, Indiana’s Grand Park Event Center. Together, my colleague, Adam Stone, and I facilitated the discussion, but the attendees – comprised of treasurers, controllers, IT Directors, municipal clerks, and elected officials – drove the discourse. Topics of the day centered around where they see governance challenges and technology best practices they can leverage to help address them. We especially focused on how to increase data’s value to their organizations.
Here are four key tips and takeaways identified by the Indiana User Group:
1. Empower Department Heads with Relevant Data and Flexible Reporting
Common among discussed challenges was frustration with legacy ERP systems when seeking to share information easily internally across departments. Attendees noted that while the notion of public sector transparency often seems to apply externally, it can also apply internally. Many department heads feel the rely on a few staff members who have the ability to access ERP systems and generate reports.
A more flexible solution, however, can increase data’s value by permitting integration with existing ERPs, enabling more up-to-date, on-demand data in a central location accessible to managers. Flexible reporting options give them what they need when they need it. The group noted that often, department heads have difficulty finding time to understand their own financial data. “If you don’t know your numbers, you don’t know your business,” noted one attendee. The group shared how internal dashboards and non-financial visualizations could help educate department heads, leading them to “own” and “know” their numbers, thereby resulting in more informed decision-making.
2. Increase Data’s Value by Context
It is certainly critical for internal stakeholders to be able to access and understand a city’s financial data – Adam referred to this as the “framework of operational reporting,” whereby data is consumed internally. However, external understanding is just as important. Budgets can be cumbersome, and throwing mountains of data and figures out to the public without accompanying context can result in serious misinterpretations. And ultimately, budgets simply don’t work without external buy-in.
The key is to present financial information in context, reducing questions and alleviating concerns. The group discussed the value of “saved views,” which help frame data views around commonly asked questions or high-demand information. For example, cities can direct residents to exact data points when there are inquiries about what type of services the Board of Public Works supports. Saving views for the top 10 queries from the public is an easy and effective way to reduce time responding to public information requests.
Another context-building strategy we discussed was implementing a landing page that presents written answers to frequently-asked questions and links to the transparency platform. “How to” videos for citizens are also useful components of landing pages, as the videos can educate the public on everything from the nature of the general fund to how to drill down into department-level data.
3. Answer Council Questions in Real Time
Unsurprisingly, many participants had experienced or witnessed council budget sessions during which answers to questions were unavailable. While most said they had never considered using technology as a tool in that situation, most agreed that doing so could be one of the easiest ways to answer council questions in real-time. Through interactive drill-downs and easy-to-understand illustrations of the data, that information would become easier for presenters to find and for council members to understand on the spot. The enhanced engagement could also build trust between council members and staff. One participant noted of the OpenGov Platform in particular, “I definitely want to open it up during council meetings; that’s my goal.”
Another described how his council’s use of technology after the city started integrating technology into its workflows. Introducing a transparency initiative had begun largely as a way to keep a campaign promise. “But the finance department very quickly started using [the platform] selfishly to get to our own data,” he said. The finance department was already working to increase data’s value within their team, but realized they could make it meaningful for the council. “You can quite easily determine what council members’ hot points are based on the questions they ask. For example, one member was very concerned with our municipal airport. We finally created saved views and then at a council meeting just showed them all how to access the information.” He concluded, “It goes a really, really long way to improving your relationship with those individuals and also instilling trust.”
4. Use Maps to Place Data in the Context of Communities
No communities in attendance said they had utilized technology solutions for parcel reporting, but all agreed that a great deal of parcel-level information that is very meaningful. We all work and live within geographic boundaries, so it can often make sense to view financial and non-financial data within that context. We can take the data we already have and include an address that relates to it. Effective technology solutions can automatically map that. That enables the creation of visualizations like service delivery across residential, commercial, and industrial parcels, which can inform analyses. Maps can also help inform economic development policies and aid in compliance with geographic grant allocation guidelines.
The group discussed how they could map their capital projects, adding in their Chart of Accounts codes to link historical costs and future projected costs all in one visualization. They could also work on linking Chart of Accounts codes to crime, traffic, building permit, demolition data, and more. One attendee left the group particularly excited by the possibility of being able to show the growth of residential and industrial properties through mapping.
Throughout the session, participants saw the utilization of new technology platforms shift from transparency-only solutions to those that could effectively solve day-to-day operational challenges. One attendee noted, “I knew OpenGov was a great tool, but during the meeting, I realized just how much it is going to be able to do.”
Meredith Behm is a Customer Success Manager at OpenGov.