Category Archives: Insights

The Future of Open Data

Part II – The Open Data Future: Interview with Joel Natividad

By | Insights | No Comments

Editor’s Note: On the eve of the one-year anniversary of OpenGov acquiring open data leader Ontodia, we spoke with Ontodia’s Founder and OpenGov Director of Open Data Joel Natividad about the future of open data. Joel is a member of the CKAN Association’s Steering Group, a true innovator, and an influential thought-leader in the field. Here, he discusses open data’s meaning, relevance, and the path forward towards greater usability.

Part I of our interview explored the concept of open data and its future, asking “What is open data?” Part II, below, continues the conversation by exploring open data’s future use and implementation.


PART II: What is the Next Generation of Open Data?

 

Who out there is leading the pack with their open data initiative?

No single entity comes right to mind as the “poster child” for open data. There are glimmers in smaller jurisdictions that don’t have to deal with all the stakeholders that can be hurdles to innovation. Places in Eastern Europe are doing open data well; Cordova, Alaska has actually been celebrated as an exemplar internationally.

Are there hurdles to effective implementation that are causing municipalities to miss the mark?

When open data first emerged, the whole premise was to just publish the data first and that innovation would follow. That didn’t happen. Because those expectations were not met, there has been some level of disillusionment among some early adopters. There’s a lot of talk about how hackathons haven’t delivered on the promise of open data – now a lot of cities and jurisdictions are hosting challenge formats instead of than the hackathon approach.

It is more useful to define a particular problem instead of just saying, “Here’s some data. Go do something with it.” It’s a balancing act. Some jurisdictions have just let their data initiatives and portals go, so you’ll see stale data sets. It just becomes a box to check, and afterwards, since the data is not being utilized in an operational way, it just dies on the vine.

We have to overcome some of that disillusionment, and that’s why OpenGov’s approach is very relevant. At the end of the day, the most important data set is the budget. The budget drives everything else. It funds the services that generate all this open data.

So are there initiatives out there now that can provide a glimpse into the future of open data?

A transition is underway. Analyze Boston is a great concrete example of that.

Analyze Boston originated as a response to the Knight Foundation’s library challenge, which sought to examine the role of libraries and curators in the digital age. Instead of curating knowledge on dead trees, how can librarians also curate and catalog the data governments produce? Analyze Boston seeks to effectively catalog not just public data, but their accompanying insights.

This is a perfect example of operationalizing data. Boston rebranded its open data portal as “Analyze Boston.” That is itself a call to action, to analyze. With this clean, curated data, what insights can we gain? Not only should we catalog the data, but we should also catalog the insights. The project is agile, in that there have been rounds of improvements after internal beta launches, and it is moving toward a full public launch this spring. That will generate additional feedback for improvement.

The emergence of CIOs in cities is another real trend that provides a glimpse of the future of open data. This shows that data is beginning to be treated as a real infrastructure asset.

What about non-technical local government management? For instance, how could a Finance Director leverage and operationalize open data?

It’s good to remember that when the computer revolution first started, the IT function originally came up as a function of the Finance Director. IT staff originally reported to the CFO because the first automated systems were accounting systems. Eventually, over time, IT became its own function. I think we’re going through a similar arc now with open data – but in reverse. Currently, it is generally understood that data and IT are separate functions, but we will probably see some convergence.

At the ground level, we need to prioritize the kind of data we gather so that it directly relates to the budget. Property taxes, parcel data, permits – those are examples of high-value data and they have finance as well as classical open data components. We need to prioritize those data sets that share common financial lineage with the budget. Doing so makes it easier for a Finance Director to answer, questions like “Why do I care about open data?”

Whereas some consider open data a “feel-good” type of affair, it goes beyond meeting a transparency responsibility once its operationalized. We need to quantify non-financial data and link it with the financial data so that everybody cares. Everybody can start measuring not just the numbers, but how the budget supports the services the data describes.

There have been critiques of open data portals. For example, some think they are unengaging, difficult to navigate, or too static. What’s your perspective on those critiques?

A lot of the critiques are valid, to be candid, because we are still in the early days of open data. There was recently an open letter to the open data community from Chief Data Officers concerning what is lacking right now in terms of treating open data as infrastructure.

There are still gaps, but the great thing about the way we’re working now, is that we’re working with the community in a standards-based, open-source context to address those gaps. It’s not just OpenGov building and addressing them. It’s a wide community of innovators and governments working together. For example, the city of Karlsrühe in Germany built a better search engine for their open data. They built it for their own purposes, but contributed it to the wider open source CKAN community. We can take that from Karlsrühe and apply it in Boston.

This innovation ecosystem is what is exciting about the CKAN community. And it allows cities to focus on collaboration and better performance without needing to worry about running or administering the platform.

Can you discuss how open data technologies can be useful, useable, and used?

The key to making open data useful and used is in adopting the same techniques that made other technologies successful. I often compare it to the early days of the internet in the mid-90s. At the time, connecting to the Internet was something only hackers did. Then AOL came along and made it easy for anybody with a CD-ROM drive to have access. Even so, it was still somewhat of a walled garden that AOL curated. But it achieved the purpose of exposing non-technical people to the potential of the internet.

I think the first generation of open data is just like that. Many jurisdictions have tested the waters of open data using proprietary technologies. They concentrated more on ease-of-use and how it integrated with their back-end systems, rather than treating it as an infrastructure component or strategic asset. They’ve built the walled gardens.

We’re adopting the same arc to ease into open data, and now people are starting to better understand its potential.

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting

Stronger Public Sector Budgeting: Webinar Takeaways

By | Customer Stories, Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of moderating an incredible webinar about public sector budgeting: “Budgeting for Success Amid Uncertainty.” Veteran Finance Directors Bill Statler (retired from San Luis Obispo, California); Boulder City, Nevada’s Finance Director Hyun Kim; and OpenGov’s VP of Government Finance Solutions Mike McCann (retired from Ukiah, California) each shared their perspectives based on their professional expertise and experiences as local finance directors.

Nearly half of all U.S. states are facing revenue shortfalls this year. As governments actively face the near-term prospect of either an economic downturn or the one of the longest growth periods in our nation’s history, the panelists discussed the natural challenges associated with budgeting effectively in such uncertain economic environments –both strong and weak environments. The session melded theory with practice, focusing on providing insights and solutions. In an era compelling governments to constantly do more with less, they noted that modernizing public sector budgeting and planning approaches would be critical to achieving success.

Preparing for the Next Downturn

Bill Statler spoke specifically to strategies for preparing for the next economic downturn. While most local governments have recovered from the Great Recession and have experienced recent growth, future downturns and other uncertainties are inevitable. Those organizations that are planning now are best-equipped to succeed through future challenges. “If you can’t prepare for these in the best of times, when can you?” Statler posited.

He honed in on specific challenges, including economic outlook, unaddressed infrastructure needs, and pensions and retiree health care. To address them proactively, he suggested five strategies for ensuring long-term fiscal health:

  1. Engage your community and align resources with priorities. “At the end of the day, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about the community,” Statler said. The governing body must lead the way while engaging the community early.
  2. Use your favorable results for one-time purposes. Fund capital improvements you deferred and address unfunded liabilities. He said, “Today is your base,” which means there is no catching up. Operate from your current reality and minimize program expansion until your infrastructure plan is caught up and liabilities are sufficiently funded.
  3. Implement fiscal policies. Fiscal policies (such as balanced budget, CIP management, minimum fund balance, etc.) are preventative and curative. According to Statler, they are your “guiding North Star,” providing continuity and articulating organizational values when the organization is under less stress. “If you have a notion of where you want to be, your chances of getting there are significantly enhanced.”
  4. Plan for the long-term. Financial planning forces you to think about factors that affect your fiscal health. Forecasts provide a powerful context to gauge how you are doing, and how best to frame policy decisions for what lies ahead.
  5. Create a contingency plan. What is your strategy? A clear response plan and guidelines, communicated to both residents and internal staff, will enable you to respond to adverse circumstances smoothly. Identify triggers for implementing the plan and engage employees early on when seeking solutions.

Planning for Change, a Case Study

Hyun Kim spoke of how Boulder City, Nevada has navigated post-recession dynamics to while striving for long-term fiscal sustainability. His federally-planned city – originally founded to house Hoover Dam construction workers – grappled with how to do more with less while also anticipating an inevitable growth slowdown. While tourism provides opportunities, Boulder City faces aging demographics that can’t fund growth in perpetuity due to strict growth ordinances.

Beyond demographics, Kim spoke of very practical budget process concerns. He arrived in his position in the middle of its budget season, and he was unfamiliar with the City’s existing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Thus, he faced firm budget deadlines amid ever-shifting circumstances such as ongoing labor negotiations and personnel shifts – all while trying to navigate a new ERP system.

He discussed the benefits of long-term planning and leveraging non-traditional approaches within the public sector. For instance, by leveraging cloud technology, he said his team has realized operating and cost efficiencies. In addition to other workflow processes, his team started using OpenGov’s cloud-based budgeting solution, which he said allowed him to leverage existing ERP data through a simpler interface. Whereas static spreadsheets would be stale by the time they made it to council, the new software provided solutions that were “living” – allowing for automatic updates, collaboration, and a faster online process. “We were able to see changes being made in a centralized spot from various departments. It saved our weekends,” he said.

Empowering Stronger Public Sector Budgeting

Mike McCann concluded with brief remarks from his own perspective as both head of OpenGov’s in-house team of finance experts on the Government Finance Solutions team and as a veteran finance director himself. He explained that he joined OpenGov for its mission – to empower more effective and accountable government. That mission exists to help everyone in the industry. He noted that the effort is centered around designing a set of solutions focused on the budget as the heart of government. As capabilities are added, the outcomes increase in turn.

If you were unable to join the live webinar on March 21st, be sure to watch it yourself for more takeaways and first-hand perspectives from seasoned professionals in the field.


Autumn Carter leads Government Affairs at OpenGov.

4 Ways to Increase Data's Value to Your Organization

4 Ways to Increase Data’s Value: Hoosier User Takeaways

By | Customer Stories, Events, Insights | No Comments

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.

Boston Future Open Data

Part I – The Open Data Future: Interview with Joel Natividad

By | Insights | No Comments

Editor’s Note: On the eve of the one-year anniversary of OpenGov acquiring open data leader Ontodia, we spoke with Ontodia’s Founder and OpenGov Director of Open Data Joel Natividad about the future of open data. Joel is a member of the CKAN Association’s Steering Group, a true innovator, and an influential thought-leader in the field. Here, he discusses open data’s meaning, relevance, and the path forward towards greater usability.

Part I of our interview, below, explores the concept of open data and its future. Part II will continue the conversation by exploring open data’s future use and implementation.


 

PART I: Understanding Open Data

 

How do you define open data?

The common or classical understanding of open data is that it is data published for transparency purposes. Many of us are familiar with the McKinsey Global Institute study, which cited the potential of open data to create $3 trillion in value in the global economy. To date, we haven’t really captured that potential.

Part of the reason we have not reached that level of potential is that the main mistake made during the first generation of open data: it was not enough just to publish data. We found that the reality is not simply, “publish it and innovation will come.” Having gone through the first generation of open data, we’ve learned the hard way that people don’t really care about raw, hard data. The emphasis needs to change so that we are using “open” as a verb – as in “opening data.”

And what does “opening data” actually look like?

The purpose of open data is not just for the sake of public transparency, but its value is also in driving decisions inside of government. By treating open data as a strategic asset, you make the data cleaner and more operational. That increase of utility is the future, and it’s an internal cultural shift as well, whereby government is not only the publisher of the data, but also the beneficiary.

Opening data creates a ‘data of record’ source for all government departments, internally first, and then to share among peers. Often, governments view open data initiatives as another unfunded mandate: government personnel aren’t sure what the outcomes are, or fear they may accidentally share sensitive information. If governments make actively using and sharing open data part of their normal workflow, everybody benefits. The staff benefits, the council benefits, the public benefits. If you increase open data’s utility, you increase its relevance, and that is where things are heading.

What are the main drivers moving open data toward the future?

One of the things you find now, especially from the leading thinkers on 21st Century government like the Sunlight Foundation, the Government Center for Excellence at Johns Hopkins, and others, is that open data is a means to an end. The key point is that the end goal is performance management. How do you do performance management? You cannot do it without open data. Governments cannot perform well without this basic ingredient of clean, open data. At OpenGov, we are looking at it in the same way.

Joel Natividad - Future of Open Data

So what are examples of using open data for performance management?

We see the best way to operationalize open data to enhance performance is to correlate spending with outcomes. With Ontodia, our core competency was finance. If we correlate and measure financial data against other data, we gain an insight of spending versus outcomes. This drives a feedback loop and enables governments to explore how they are operating; to assess whether they are efficient. They can also benchmark against other entities of the same size. What are they doing? How are their costs lower than ours?

Unlike in the private sector, the beauty of the public sector is that it actually encourages people to share notes. Not just for competition’s sake, but to learn from each other. Take Pepsi and Coke, for example. They are in competition and would never share the secret sauce. In government, that’s not the case. We want to talk to each other.

How do non-government organizations like OpenGov fit into the future of open data?

We offer the critical participation component. We work from the open-sourced, standards-based project CKAN (Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network), which is the predominate solution for large governments. I say “large governments” because before OpenGov, you needed hackers to stand up CKAN-based open data portals. We are essentially productizing CKAN, and including value-added applications that allow municipal-level personnel – especially non-programmers – to concentrate on opening the data, rather than running a data portal. Our standards-based solution allows for innovation and enables conversation among cities.

The good thing is that, in general, people now agree that governments should treat data as infrastructure. When municipal systems were first built, they weren’t built with open data in mind. They weren’t designed to have common linkages or data standards. But that transition is underway, and OpenGov is facilitating that transition.

Is it currently possible to measure or quantify tangible benefits of open data?

Right now the easiest way to measure the return on investment or open data’s payback is in calculating the costs of complying with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and public records requests. Those requests are often onerous, redundant, and expensive. Through the utilization of open data, you can dramatically reduce your FOIA processing costs. That’s an easy one.

I always go back to prioritizing data and ensuring a linkage to the budget. If we operationalize data and correlate it to the budget, it will absolutely help cities achieve data-driven government. It’s not just a nicer way to understand the budget or get away from dealing with ERP reports. While there’s no easy measure of it, if you connect the data to high-value budget priorities, it leads to operational efficiencies.

Does the public have a responsibility in an open data “ecosystem”?

Yes. Part of the open data challenge is educating the public about that responsibility. For example, as Analyze Boston’s open data initiative enters its second phase, it includes a public education campaign. That is part of making data useful. If you think back to when 311 was introduced, it gave the public a way to interact with government using digital means. Software consumed the first generation of open data. But to make it both useful to and used by the common consumer, I think you have to correlate it to the budget. Then people will start to care.

What if, instead of giving people a piece of paper that shows how much they need to pay in property tax, we give them something that shows just what they are getting in return? That’s why I’m so excited about the potential of tying financial data to budget data. We can quantify for people – at a neighborhood level – how much the city has allocated on their behalf for infrastructure and other services. By completing this picture, citizens will come to care about open data. Ultimately, this will help to restore the lost trust in government.

Read Part II of the interview here.

Secretary George Shultz Visits OpenGov; Talks Budgeting

By | Insights, Life at OpenGov | No Comments

Today, OpenGov was honored to host Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and OpenGov Co-Founder and Chairman Joe Lonsdale for a fireside chat with our Co-Founder and CEO, Zac Bookman. The OpenGov team huddled for an hour to listen and ask questions as the trio discussed world affairs and shared stories.

The conversation ranged from the expected to the sentimental. Secretary Shultz reaffirmed his simultaneous desires not to endorse a presidential candidate and to help the next president craft foreign policy. He also revealed a regret millions share: not writing to his mother more. A portrait of her hangs in the Secretary’s office.

Most of the talk, however, centered on a topic that rarely makes the front page. Or page two. But the topic enables effective, competent government. It puts uniforms on soldiers, repairs our bridges, and educates our children.

It’s the budget process. The annual or biannual cycle governments use to allocate public money and implement policies that citizens’ elected representatives enact.

As Director of the Office of Management and Budget from 1970-1972, Secretary Shultz helped craft the President’s budget proposal and manage budget negotiations with Congress. The budget process today is broken at all levels of government: the last time Congress passed all 12 appropriation bills to fund federal agencies on time was 1996. In The Coming Transformation, Joe and Zac write how “government administration and security realms rely on closed platforms with slow back-office processes and excess manual data entry.”

Secretary Shultz reaffirmed the magnitude of these challenges. Because of inadequate budgeting tools that do not enable true collaboration, budgeting power has become too centralized in the White House. Secretary Shultz explained how centralization over-politicizes the budget process, limits input from those closest to government operations, and prevents the natural inter- and intra-agency negotiations necessary to any budget process. He believes that, by making budgeting more collaborative and inclusive, the budget process can create a more operational instead of partisan climate – achieving improved operational effectiveness.

We agree, and believe all levels of government can benefit from better budgeting:

  • A recent article explains how Greenwood, Indiana’s Police Department discovered using modern budgeting software that its 2017 budget “did not account for enough police cars to accommodate an extended staff. Finding the money for the squad cars was much easier than it would have been before Budget Builder. ‘We collectively made additional reductions on certain items based on the past in order to accumulate money to buy those cars,’ [Greenwood’s Controller Adam] Stone said.” In other words, Budget Builder caught an error before it happened, saving hours of clerical work and a scramble to find funds in during the year.
  • Burnet, Texas used modern budgeting software to cut time spent on the budget’s clerical work in half, creating more time for the collaboration and strategic thinking necessary to craft and implement effective policy.

An excerpt of a fireside chat with Secretary Shultz, OpenGov Co-Founder and Chairman Joe Lonsdale, and OpenGov Co-Founder and CEO Zac Bookman

Imagine successes like Greenwood’s and Burnet’s across the world, at every level of government. These triumphs are what Secretary Shultz repeatedly emphasized will restore effective, competent government. This is the vision we at OpenGov work every day to achieve.

We thank Secretary Shultz and Joe for joining us today, sharing stories, and inspiring our team.

My perfect budget team

By | Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

The budget process is fascinating. A complex combination (should we say collision?) of technical, political, and human factors produce a plan that determines how public money will be raised and spent.  

My first contact with any kind of budget was as a young soldier. Our captain (who was not much older than me) called us together and explained that if we did not spend our allocated budget this year, we would lose the difference and our budget would be reduced in the next year. With his prodding, we discovered a sudden need for expensive new radios and other high-tech gear.

I wasn’t in Kansas any more

Since then, I have budgeted in corporate, not-for-profit, and start-up organizations. I have balanced budgets in the face of indecipherable Federal JTPA regulations, stuffed-shirt corporate officers, and explosive yet poorly-capitalized growth. But none of those technical challenges prepared me for the drama of municipal budgeting, in full view of the public, staff, and Council.

There was never a need to actively socialize the budget process in the private sector. We drafted the budget, casually ran numbers by various people in operating areas, adjusted the numbers when necessary, and wrapped up the process. There was little concept of give and take, of achieving consensus or addressing any stakeholders beyond the Board of Directors. Our interests were fully aligned around controlling expenses, building revenue, and maximizing profits.

“Welcome to government service”  

“The budget means something a little different around here, and the annual process is just a little different too,” I was told by my new bosses. I spent a lot of time going from department to department in those early years. I learned that if I left a department head unsatisfied, his pipeline to the City Manager was fatter and faster than mine. I also learned that most folks did not know as much as they thought they did. In particular, acceptance of of a fixed resource pie seemed to get little traction.  

We had a gruff old Public Works Director who had probably occupied his office longer than I had been in the work force. He ran his domain with expertise and daunting authority. I remember him rearing back at a budget meeting and telling us his shop had given enough and it was time to “cut some guns and hoses” from the budget. Of course the Police and Fire Chiefs had some other cost saving suggestions for him, and me.

Experience is a hard task master, but I finally realized that finding some allies would be a good idea in this battle. We started developing a group of people interested in budgeting who could come together and explore the reality of limited resources and unlimited demands. It was a gradual process, but we made progress — expanding the envelope and spreading the learning and the budget process more widely each year.

Over time, I found that some groups and individuals grow stronger and more central to the budget process while others fall out of the process to varying degrees. While budget work is central to staff in a dedicated budget or finance office, it is extra work for staff in other shops. If their boss does not actively support their involvement and allow time for them to focus on the budget process, then they are put in an awkward situation.

Core team and other players

“Team” may be too strong a term for what usually evolves. “Temporary work group” might be more accurate for the loose amalgamation of people that get involved. Budget team members tend to have a combination of departmental needs, affinity for numbers, desire to be on the inside, and obsession with detail. In my experience, Assistant Directors, Analysts, or whichever title the number two person in each department goes by tend to have these traits. My most successful teams have been heterogeneous mixes; they represent every department and include a range of seniority and management levels.

In addition to this core team, there are two other “teams” in play. First, the executive group is often asked as a body to support the working budget team, and of course, are the ultimate arbitrators of the budget that is recommended to the legislative body.

Second, it is beneficial to have an expanded budget team of stakeholders outside the core process that includes representatives from organizations like Library, police and recreation oversight boards, labor units, and the general public. You may not get them together physically, but may share information and feedback over the Internet or at their own group meetings. Bringing these people into the process often makes it harder for them to oppose difficult decisions as they may if relegated outside the process.

Education is magic

I have tried many approaches to training teams and managers on budgeting, and every attempt has yielded mixed results. Some get it immediately, wonder what all the fuss is about, and want to know when they can get back to work. Others take more time. Sometimes they understand but are nervous about plunging in and need some moral support. And some just come to it more slowly — although they can be very strong because once they do get it, they really get it. They know how to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s, how to account for every dollar.

In the end, a mix of face-to-face training with Q&A and written material including screen shots has worked best for me. Shortcuts like memos and blank worksheets cause more cleanup time than what we would have invested in proper training at the front end.

One reason to keep teams open and flexible was the the budget cycle’s length — usually running six months or more each year.  People get promoted, move around, and are tasked with new projects and find interests over time. We learn best by repetition and iteration. An annual cycle makes the accumulation of expertise a slow process, and budget veterans a prized commodity.

So what’s the point?

The budget expresses the government’s vision and strategy. It is not desirable or realistic do it alone. Crafting a budget that supports staff in their work for their stakeholders is the goal. The budget is best crafted by a team working in the daylight, listening and learning broadly, iterating and testing ideas. The process will produce superior results, with a budget that is widely understood and accepted on the day it is adopted.

Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

Nine Lessons I Learned in Budgeting

By | Finance Officer's Desk, Insights | No Comments

After a dozen years building corporate budgets and another dozen years assembling government budgets, I have learned some hard lessons. Many of you may share similar thoughts:

1. The legislative body does not have the technical skills to forecast revenues and should not be expected to do so, especially since revenues are primarily the result of events outside local control. Finance professionals need to use their skills and experience to generate the most accurate possible revenue forecast for the legislators. They consider local and national factors, review historical trends, analyze current conditions, and project trends into the future.

2. The completed revenue forecast is the best professional estimate of revenue available to the budget process. Together with unrestricted reserves, these revenues are the total funding available for expense planning in the budget process.

3. Accurately managing personnel costs and their allocation is incredibly difficult, but key to accurate budgeting. These costs represent 75% or more of most government budgets so errors in salary-related costs can be particularly damaging — four times as distorting as the same percentage errors in non-personnel costs.

4. Expense budgeting should start as close to the action as possible. Line supervisors and project managers often have the most current and detailed information to work with. Equally important, they can best tell their project’s story, and explain both why funds are needed and how they will be used.

5. Budget leaders must ensure that line staff and the budget team are properly educated and oriented to both goals and methodology. Old fashioned line-item worksheets are less effective for organizing budgets than more activity-oriented budget input tools. Formats that start with the story and then encourage thoughtful expense planning help avoid across the board and generally less thoughtful line-item percentage increases.

6. There are many more line department leaders at all levels than there are budget analysts. Line department leaders know what they need; let them advocate for themselves. Empowering line staff to contribute directly to the budget process is a win-win proposition — as long as the budget team and executives have visibility and the final say.

7. The budget leaders need to understand the current state of the budget throughout the process.  Current revenue and expense totals should be visible, clear, and accurate. Access to every proposal and detail should be online and easily found.

8. Good budgeting takes time. Socialization, consensus building, iteration, political tradeoffs, horse trading; these are all common terms and concepts surrounding this inherently political process. Budget calendars and firm significant milestones help an organization move forward in a measured and orderly manner.

9. Taking enough time to reconcile the details and circulate the latest results at each major step is crucial to staff consideration and political buy-in. If the budget is not realistic or if staff know they will not be able to operate within its constraints, then the process is a failure and disservice to the entire organization.

As a financial professional, crafting a clean and functional balanced budget might be the most important and creative work you do all year long. It is the product of your many years of experience, education, and sheer hard work. It is critical to the functioning of your entire organization and its ability to provide services to residents and other stakeholders.

The things you do in Excel to build that budget look like magic to everyone else – but often keep you awake checking and double checking late into the night. The package of linked budget worksheets you have built over a career are effective and accurate, but you know that they are going to make it hard to retire someday. No amount of documentation and hand-off is going to adequately cover it.

Peer-to peer tip: Try out the Budget Milestones Report which is available at no extra cost as part of the OpenGov Intelligence platform!

Mike McCann moved into government service in Ukiah, then Monterey CA, after beginning his career in corporate (ADP, Wells Fargo Bank, Blue Shield of CA), not-for-profit (Blue Shield of Ca, Mendocino Private Industry Council), and start-up accounting. For the last 20 years, Mike has been hands-on with budget, financial reporting and accounting operations, including City budgets and CAFRs. He holds a B.S.  in Accounting from SJSU and M.S. in Instructional Technology from  CSUMB.

Contact Mike with questions or comments at mmccann@opengov.com.

Kansas City, MO

Win a Chance to Issue Debt Without Issuance Fees

By | Insights | No Comments

Learn about a new option for municipal bond issuance and claim your chance to issue debt without issuance fees.

We’re excited to highlight a company giving the municipal bond market a much-needed upgrade. On the issuance side, Neighborly connects “issuers to members of their deal team through an origination platform for all steps involved with researching, structuring, marketing and closing a municipal bond transaction, including generation of all necessary legal documents.”

And on the investor side, Neighborly expands access to the municipal bond market. Citizens, retail investors, and institutions can purchase municipal bonds in denominations the issuer determines through the platform.

This summer, Neighborly launched the Neighborly Bond Challenge. Governments planning to issue bonds between Q4 2016 and Q4 2017 can apply to issue bonds through the platform. And it gets better – Neighborly will waive issuance fees for each of the five winners.

OpenGov helps customers issue debt through the Neighborly platform. By providing one place for users to explore and download financial information, governments save themselves and creditors alike countless hours of work during the issuance process. This is why Neighborly is saving at least one of the five slots in….. for an OpenGov customer.

We believe Neighborly will revolutionize how governments and their constituents invest in their communities. We encourage you to learn more about the Neighborly Bond Challenge.

The City of Lewiston Pioneers Transparency in Idaho With OpenGov

By | Customer Stories, Insights | No Comments

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.

Want to read more like this? Subscribe to our blog for the latest in 21st century government!

Six Tech Policies We Want Every Candidate for Federal Office to Support

By | Insights | No Comments

OpenGov interacts with political leaders from both sides of the aisle every day in our efforts to set a new standard for how governments analyze, share, and compare financial data. We encourage officials of all political stripes to embrace innovation and accountability – and we take every opportunity to showcase leadership initiatives that advance technology and transparency policies that push our country forward.

Several months ago, we were honored to host House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy at our office to highlight the House GOP’s Innovation Agenda and identify ways the tech community can support this important initiative.

Today, we are shining the spotlight on Hillary Clinton’s technological innovation policy platform designed to help governments leverage technology to improve efficiency, foster civic engagement, and build public trust.

Secretary Clinton joins a growing bipartisan list of leaders with initiatives focused on retaining America’s technological competitiveness and its government’s connections with citizens in the digital age.

There are six pillars in Secretary Clinton’s platform that are worthy of special recognition:

1. Empowering women and minorities to pursue STEM degrees: Teams with diverse members contribute different perspectives that lead to better code, better products, and better value for consumers. Unfortunately, too few technology companies benefit from these contributions because too few women and minorities have a STEM background. Secretary Clinton’s emphasis on increasing diversity in STEM fields will go a long way in improving the numbers and spread diversity’s benefits across the nation.

2. Expanding access to broadband connectivity: Citizens increasingly use cloud technology for core tasks such as applying for jobs, furthering their education, writing reports, paying bills, and interacting with government. This makes internet access more important than ever; efforts like Secretary Clinton’s initiative could ensure all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, can benefit from connectivity.

Governments also need to do a better job connecting themselves – every day, we deal with organizations with poor connectivity within their own walls. Better broadband infrastructure within government buildings will enable the public sector to fully leverage cloud computing’s benefits, just as countless private sector industries have.

3. Making government more user-friendly: Unfortunately, antiquated technology and confusing user interfaces plague too many citizen-government interactions. President Obama made many government sites more accessible and intuitive, on both desktop and mobile devices. We support Secretary Clinton’s proposal to expand these efforts.

In fact, governments themselves benefit from intuitive online services – millennials used to streamlined interfaces on their smartphones are more likely to enter and engage with public service if an agency embraces modern technology and design.

4. Streamlining procurement processes: Complex and long procurement processes make it difficult for nimble, innovative companies to offer governments the technology needed to improve operations and engage citizens effectively and efficiently. Reducing procurement barriers would lower costs and eliminate reliance on large vendors selling outdated tools.

5. Opening more government data for public use: We can all agree that as citizens, we should hold the federal government accountable, but until recently, few citizens could evaluate how well the government does its job because data was stuck in static PDFs and spreadsheets – often buried deep within public sites. These barriers also prevented entrepreneurs from using public data to craft new businesses or offer solutions.

As a country, we took a big step forward when agencies were directed to make their data structured and machine-readable under the current administration. By pledging to fully implement the DATA Act and increase the ease with which citizens can access government information, proposals like Secretary Clinton’s will give citizens – and internal stakeholders – the opportunity for new insights into government operations and abilities to leverage the data for innovation.

At OpenGov, we’ve worked closely with the Data Coalition to promote Open Data policies such as the DATA Act, and we’re excited to see public officials from both parties and candidates like Secretary Clinton support these efforts.

6. Focusing on performance: Like in the private sector, government managers need to ensure that financial investments of taxpayer dollars lead to tangible benefits. Emphasizing dashboards that link financials to performance is an essential part of any innovation initiative, and we commend Secretary Clinton for recognizing this.

We are encouraged by the attention technology and innovation policies are receiving at the highest levels, and we will continue to highlight and applaud pro­-technology leaders willing to discuss and promote innovation at the federal level.

All parties and candidates should be able to agree on innovation policies because they will position America, and its government, for success in the years and decades ahead.

When it comes to our country’s most pressing challenges, the federal government certainly must lead and help develop solutions, yet as citizens, we must demand innovation from state and local governments because they operate ‘closest to home.’ State and local governments manage schools, maintain roadways, provide clean water and sewer systems, and establish fire and police protection – among countless other services.

So, this election season, we should ask each candidate for federal office how they plan to promote innovation at the federal level and how they will empower cities, regions, and states with the newest digital technology. We need to urge them to support pro-­technology policies so innovation can reach every level of government.

Want to read more content like this? Subscribe to our weekly digest!

Jeff Schultz is OpenGov’s Chief Marketing Officer. He is an experienced marketing leader with a track record of building world-class brands and exceptional marketing teams. Prior to OpenGov, Jeff was Head of Marketing at Syncplicity, a business unit of EMC, where he established the brand as a market leader in enterprise file sync and share, tripling growth year-over-year. Before that, Jeff was Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Bill.com, where he built the organization from its early stages to a recognized leader in cloud-based accounting services. Jeff received a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He has completed two Ironman Triathlons and is a black belt in Tae Kwan Do.

Contact Jeff with questions or comments at jschultz@opengov.com.