Category Archives: OpenGov Expert’s Corner

6 Ways to Take Your Transparency Portal to the Next Level

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We’ve discussed the obvious and hidden benefits of financial transparency in prior posts, and if you are ready to start getting more from your OpenGov transparency site, then these six tips are what you need to get going.

1. Curate a list of the important views for your citizens

Data can be overwhelming, and citizens learn best when information is presented as stories with context. To connect citizens with the insights they need, build a set of “Saved Views” you feel are important for your organization.  

For example, the City of Alpharetta presents compelling saved views to citizens:

2. Create reports for “hot topics”

Finances are at the nucleus of government, but there are always hot topics that come up during council meetings. These can range from results of satisfaction surveys to issued dog licenses!  Keep this data online so everyone stays updated.  

For example, the City of Santa Clarita reports results on citizen satisfaction with employees:

3. Personalize your site

Add your city logo, a report description and attach supporting documentation (like your budget book or strategic plan). This helps make the site more relatable to citizens.

4. Annotate important transactions

Some transactions will inevitably catch the public eye. By adding notes to important transactions, you can proactively answer questions before they come in.  

5. Keep your site updated

There is nothing worse for citizens than going to an outdated transparency site. Update your data at least once a month to ensure citizens can gain the information they need – and reaffirm your government’s commitment to transparency.

6. Promote on social media

Draw attention to your OpenGov site by promoting on social media and your homepage! Your citizens spend hours on social media, and by meeting them on Facebook, Twitter, and your government’s homepage, you can give them more opportunities to learn about their governments.

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Tom is a Product Manager at OpenGov.  Before joining OpenGov, Tom worked at JPMorgan Chase as a Developer and Data Analyst.  Tom enjoys eating at McDonalds and wearing fluorescent pants.
 

Polishing Your Reports: Crafting professional and engaging reports

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Does your finance team need to prepare professional looking reports for your executives, legislators and the public? Do you need reports you can add to budget books, staff reports, and other important communications? Do you want everyone to save time and use fresh data? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then OpenGov can help.

Setting up OpenGov reports for the government’s financial and other important data takes just a few moments. You and your Customer Success Analyst did the initial work during the implementation process.

With a just a little more attention, you can polish and focus your reports so they become more effective tools to increase financial understanding, socialize a realistic understanding of the budget, and develop consensus on important civic issues. Your reports can be ready to use on the big screen in front during meetings and included in any reporting process. Better reports can support both your internal management and external audit functions.

So where do we begin? Let’s take the basic need to give every executive, department head, and project leader monthly updates tracking their expenses against the budget. Of course, you also need to include this information in your formal Council/Board reporting at least once a quarter. You have had a monthly report, designed for just this purpose, on your site ever since you started using OpenGov Intelligence; now we will refine the message it delivers to your important audiences:

Today we will turn this basic working report (above) into a more polished, professional, and interesting piece of communication (below):

A step-by-step process unlocks powerful tools built into each report

Settings controls let you design the entry point for each report

We start with a basic monthly-template report and produce a final result we can be proud of. First, we will use the settings at the lower left on the report screen to update many of the report’s design features. Selecting Settings opens a Settings panel with several control options:

In the General options, the first item on the Settings panel, we can make our first changes:

1. A better report name and description will help set the user’s expectations of what they will be able to learn.

  • Change the report name to something brief and meaningful, enticing the user to investigate.
  • Add a longer description to orient the user when she opens the report, and be sure to make the description visible with the slide control.

Saving these changes makes them available immediately to all users.

2. The column labels along the bottom of the report looked good overall, but the default column label on the righthand column was not clear, so to fix it, you can move down the Settings panel to the X-axis configuration controls. In that control, move down the column labels and enter a better description on the last line:

The X-axis configuration control is very powerful. You can dramatically change a report’s appearance and add valuable information.

  • The first line overrides the default X-axis label
  • The detail lines correspond to each data set in the report for two functions:
    • Lines can be sorted in any order using the up and down arrows, re-ordering their placement on the report. (Try it!)
    • Lines can be relabeled, in this case from “GL 2016” to “2015-16 Adopted Budget”.

Like all Settings panel changes, click Save and everything is updated immediately.

Telling the story clearly: Using the overall look and feel to focus the user

With a more meaningful report name and properly labeled data, you can move on to update the report’s default appearance – what users will see when they open the report. Select the “Set default state” just below the “settings” control we worked with earlier.

Now, with the “configuring the report… “ control active, you will be able to update several powerful settings on the report, and save those changes for all your users.

3. SHOW (at the upper left) is key to your report’s look. For your expense vs. budget, you choose Expenses for the default display. (For other reports you might use Revenues or Both; it all depends on the story you need to tell.)

You notice that the default view lists expense types in the legend on the right. The default is to show the break out by expense type, but for your purposes, you want to help department heads and others find their part of the report quickly, so change the break out to Departments:

4. “BROKEN DOWN BY” can be set to any element in the government’s chart of accounts, typically funds, departments, and objects. (In fact, projects, activities, or any other intelligence found in the chart can be used as the starting point.) You use Departments here:

5. Graphs communicate intuitively by replacing columns of numbers with visuals that can be quickly understood with less conscious analysis. The default graph is a “stacked graph” that many find useful. At the upper left, you can see several graphs which may be useful for different purposes. You select a familiar bar graph style for this report:

6. The order of items in the legend and column also affects how the data is understood. The report default is Large-to-Small which works well in many situations.  You choose to use the Chart of Accounts order since your chart is designed to report how you do all your operating reports, and is the order your users are accustomed to seeing data in.

7. Prorating the budget for variance analysis on reports is a useful tool to help visually align the data in reports for easier evaluation.

By default, proration is enabled. This spreads the budget evenly over the year, showing an approximation of the total to better match cumulative year-to-date revenues and expenses at any point in the year.

With the Budget Proration slide turned off, the full budget is always shown in the report. This is more accurate for the full year but leaves it to the user to evaluate their mid-year results against the full-year budget.

There is no perfect solution to visually representing amounts for differing periods on the same report, so having options allows the user to make the best choice for any given reporting situation.

8. Account numbers and titles can be displayed on internal reports, a very useful tool for accountants, analysts and auditors. (Note that they will only be visible when the user drills down to the detail level in the legend.) You turn this feature on to help your analysts dig into variances and do their own research.

Once you have all the defaults setup just the way you want them, clicking on the Save button at the lower right corner of the report makes these updates part of the default all users see when opening this report. And of course, it is just as easy to go back and try other looks at any time.

Two more easy refinements are made elsewhere on the platform and they affect all reports.

9. The highest summary level titles on your Chart of Accounts are worth extra attention. Your updated report budget variance report already looks much better, but this top summary level on legend could still use a little attention.

This is too big a subject to explore in detail today, but there are three kinds of “polish” that can be applied to the highest levels of the chart of accounts at any time since these are the levels first encountered by your report users.

  • Reports display eight titles by default, with expansion buttons for longer lists of titles.  This works fine, but where possible it is cleaner to summarize the data into eight titles so it is all visible on report entry.
  • Misspellings, acronyms, and insider lingo make understanding reports harder for many users.
  • The chart of accounts order may be rearranged for the most meaningful views. For instance, Benefits normally follows directly under Wages in reporting.

10. The Edit Reporting Preferences button allows you to present variances in the way you normally do for your users; Budget minus Actual, or vice versa.  This is done In the Settings tab of the control panel (Not in Reports), so this control may make all your variance reports easier to interpret.

Save your preference, and it will be used automatically in all reports.

So, that’s it for today. You can discover the full value built into OpenGov’s powerful and flexible reporting tools by experimenting with the controls and seeing what works best for your peers and users.

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Streamline Monthly Reports and Budget Books With OpenGov

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With OpenGov, your organization can streamline important reports and other documents. We’ve even seen customers replace entire printed reports with OpenGov reports that users can interact with and explore.

This boosts internal insights. For example, if a manager sees something that stands out, she can click the number and drill down. This both empowers people to answer questions on their own and leads to better-informed follow-up. In this post, we show how two governments streamline the creation of critical documents with OpenGov:

Allegheny County, Pennsylvania Replaces Hefty and Outdated Monthly Reports

For Tony Cholewinski, Allegheny’s assistant to the Deputy Controller of Management Systems, “data delayed is data made useless.” However, before implementing OpenGov, Allegheny County’s departments needed to routinely wait a couple of months before receiving their expense and revenue packets. Although accountants inputted the data on time, there was a delay until accountants could reconcile the numbers.

“What good is a report on May’s activities,” Cholewinski asks, “if I get it in September? By that time, I don’t have the opportunity to be agile and react.” At around 25 pages a month, a year’s worth of monthly reports for one person consumes 300 pages:

At 25 pages per month, a year’s worth of monthly reports quickly consumes reams of paper per person.

Allegheny is replacing this report with OpenGov. Cholewinski and Rudolph quickly enter preliminary monthly data into OpenGov shortly after the month concludes, and circulate it to managers to find issues and foster accountability.

Rudolph explains how building these monthly reports in OpenGov will “make sure people can get information and react to it in a timely manner.” As accruals and updates come in, Allegheny can update its OpenGov site without printing a new report.

Cholewinski believes, “There’s now no excuse for directors not to take a given number from a monthly update and make a decision on it, verify it, or learn more. All the tools are there.” Before, if a manager looked through her static 25-page report and saw $50 million in unexpected spending, she was stuck with just a number.

In OpenGov, she can click on the number and figure out which divisions generated the expense, find the source, drill down to the transaction-level, and find any accounting issues. “Instead of taking the book and going back to our financial system to make decisions and assess metrics, I can do it in OpenGov by putting on a couple filters to find important trends,” Cholewinski adds.

Burnet, Texas Enhances its Budget Book With OpenGov

Before OpenGov, Budget Director Connie Maxwell had to double check every line of Excel totals to ensure there were no errors. This process often took hours, as Burnet’s budget is over a hundred pages long.

However, with OpenGov, Connie was able to automatically generate charts and tables for her budget book in a fraction of the time. All she had to do was highlight totals in Excel and, as long as she uploaded correct information into OpenGov, she didn’t have to labor through every line of every table and chart. In a recent webinar, Connie described how this substantially reduced mistakes in the budget book.

To prepare these graphics, simply ensure your data in OpenGov is fresh, filter and pivot the data as needed, select your desired chart type, then export the charts and tables you need.

Burnet used OpenGov to simplify the creation of its budget book.

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Core Operational Reports for Every Government

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By the time you join the OpenGov Network, you’ve probably seen dozens of intriguing and novel solutions to a wide range of reporting needs. You also likely know you can do amazing things with data to gain new insights, create knowledge from raw data, share and collaborate with confidence, and much more.

However, in all the excitement, it is easy to overlook the basics. Starting with a strong set of comprehensive, stable, and updated reports establishes OpenGov as your organization’s operational reporting center. OpenGov Intelligence customers should consider setting up five reports and including detailed general ledger transactions as the backbone of their operational reporting solution.

This set of core reports provides a powerful solution to key pain-points in the government’s day-to-day workflow. The reports set the stage for deeper and wider use of the platform’s full capacity, and allow the government’s entire team to benefit from the having this data at its fingertips.

1. Annual and current year reports for the legislative body with specific saved views for agenda items supporting public meetings.

To support the City Council or County Board in public meetings, set up specific saved views to show individual items on each upcoming agenda. It takes just a few moments to use OpenGov’s filter to select the data needed to discuss each agenda item and save that view. Then, just add a unique description, something like “Agenda Item 4: Proposed construction equipment purchase.”

During the session, show the report on the big screen and click on each saved view when the item comes up, informing the discussion with the specific budget and amounts already spent against it. The next morning it takes just a moment to delete the full set of saved views and have a clean report to start work on the next meeting.

Examples:

Cupertino, CA Annual Report with saved views

2. Monthly department head budget variance reports

Department Summaries set up as either a series of saved views or individual reports streamline access for executives and department heads who need to compare current year results against their budget each month. At their convenience, department heads can review their entire operation, drill into anomalies, and e-mail specific views as URL’s to team members with questions.

Examples

St Petersburg, FL‘s Budget Variance Report

3. Budget Milestones Reports (BMR) monitor, share, and socialize progress in developing the next budget

BMR bridge the gap between reporting on current budget performance and building the next budget. These reports broaden participation in the budget process by providing read-only access to budget detail at key points (milestones) in the process such as department requests, budget committee review, and the executive’s recommendation to the legislative body.

Governmental budgets are complex and difficult to share beyond the finance or budget office, limiting collaboration and consensus building. It is transformational to have a city-wide in-process budget summary on one page, while allowing users to expand and explore historical data and the current proposed budget at every development stage.

Example

City of Williams Lake, BC, Canada’s Budget Milestones Report

4. Quarterly grant status reporting

Reports for Grant Management can use grant coding of the chart of accounts or saved views for each open grant. This visibility enables grant teams to monitor and course-correct their activities in real-time with the latest data. They can report results to management and funders on a more timely basis to secure faster cost reimbursements. Transaction detail, discussed below, is often critical to supporting grant reimbursements.

Example

West Sacramento, CA’s Grant Status Report

5. Checkbook or Journal Entry (Transaction) reporting

With a simple, regularly updated grid format report, check or full journal entry details on the platform provide support to many staff members across the government:

  • Department administrative assistants spend valuable time responding to vendor inquiries about pending or in-process payments. With the checkbook updated every day, they have a great tool at their fingertips to answer these questions in seconds without call-backs, input from the AP department, or other time-wasting procedures.
  • Purchasers in decentralized governments often spend time researching vendors. Finding active vendors for specific types of purchases takes seconds with flexible checkbook sorting and selection options.
  • Staff can easily select payments for audit sampling, view contract or grant payment history, and conduct many other routine inquiries in the checkbook.

Linkages between transaction detail and annual and current-year reports allow department analysts to respond to inquiries, dig into questionable account balances, and track down stray revenue postings directly. Working in the report on the platform, they can send their research’s results to the appropriate parties with specific URL’s for action.

For example, one common use-case is finding the other side of a transaction posted to an account. With all the details linked to the report, the analyst can search the entire data set for a specific journal entry number and find the answer in seconds.

Examples

Kane County, IL’s Checkbook

Conclusion: Operational Reporting for the entire government with five core reports

With these five reports in place, any government’s team is more ready for the challenges and opportunities that greet them every day, on every phone call, and at every meeting.

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How to Use OpenGov Like our Most Successful Customers

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As a Customer Success Manager at OpenGov, I strive to make customers as happy as possible by ensuring we maximize the value we add to your government. In this post, I want to share four ways our most successful, engaged customers use OpenGov:

1. They think creatively about how OpenGov can improve their day-to-day workflow

For example, your monthly council report and a customized report with Saved Views that helps your executives make decisions using up-to-date data can live in OpenGov. Wouldn’t it be nice to create reports that cater to these officials’ needs so they can answer their own questions in real time?

Or, does the police chief have to come to you to ask how much room she has left in her budget? There’s a report for that, and your Customer Success team can help you build it!

2. They utilize OpenGov to help handle state-specific reporting requirements

Each state is a little different, but I can bet that you have to fill out some lengthy and complicated forms that explain how you’re earning and spending funds. We’ve had customers get creative and work with our Customer Success team to develop specialized reports that reduce more than a day’s work to an hour or two.

For example, check out the Minnesota City/County Summary Budget Data Form. Six pages of instructions that develop into a 232-page long document! We helped Steele County, MN build a customized report that saved them hours of work to complete this form – ask your Customer Success Manager for more details!

3. They train their colleagues (with help from their Customer Success Manager!) to use OpenGov and to consider which reports would improve their efficacy

OpenGov is an expansive platform, and it’s growing rapidly. Our most successful customers spread their excitement to their colleagues, and come to their Customer Success team with ideas and thoughts about new reports to build. We’ve helped police chiefs more easily visualize the runs their officers make, administrators explore water consumption and production, and we work with our customers every day to find new ways to use the platform.

4. They dream big – and share their struggles and wins with us

The most important tools at your disposal to achieve success with OpenGov are your imagination, your vision of your government’s OpenGov platform, and your Customer Success team. We handle many different types of governments that want and need different things to achieve their definition of success – we simply need to know what that is, so we can help you build it.

Heather is a Senior Customer Success Manager with OpenGov. Customer Success is her bread and butter – every morning starts with the question “how can I improve someone’s life today?” Outside of helping governments, she spends much of her time with her husband, Patrick, and giant Bernese Mountain Dog, Little Bear.

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Four Ways Any Government Can Benefit From OpenGov

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On May 17th, I was joined by three of our wonderful customers who shared their successes with OpenGov.  Here are just a few takeaways from that conversation:

1. Hot topics in your town make for great OpenGov Reports.

Brian Dehner, the City Administrator of Edgewood Kentucky, shared how one of the city’s most popular reports stemmed from concerns shared at a Council meeting. Citizens were upset at the high rate of speeds cars were driving in the community. The police chief listened and began to track the speed information on streets and create a report on his computer. By taking the information an old static report found on a computer, and uploading it to OpenGov, the information became much more useful.  Now, citizens can view the public report anytime they want to understand the actual activity on their streets.

2. Don’t just put the data up; use reports to tell a story.

Andrew McCreery, Director of Finance in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania shared how he utilizes OpenGov during his Commission meetings. “Mt. Lebanon has over 13,000 street trees,” he said, “and we spent over $850,000 last year on tree maintenance.” Particularly during the challenging time of the Emerald Ash Borer, Andrew needed to demonstrate how Mt. Lebanon was spending money to protect the green space in their community. It took only 5 minutes to create an immensely useful report with more than 10 saved views.  During the meeting, he used the views to tell a story and help all stakeholders understand how the public funds were being spent to preserve their community.

3. Create an internal network of OpenGov users.

Connie Maxwell, Director of Special Budget and Projects in Burnet, Texas, has been very proactive about sharing information with all stakeholders. With OpenGov Intelligence, she is able to create and use an unlimited amount of reports, and she has taken advantage of this to the full extent. To date, Connie has created over 25 reports, and only two of those are public. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t sharing information, in fact, Burnet’s platform has 24 unique users who log into OpenGov and are able to easily access and understand pertinent information. Some of the many unique reports Connie shares include Cash & Investment Report, Airport Reports, Electric Department Reports and Payroll Analysis.

4. The bottom line is, our customers are using OpenGov in extremely innovative ways to solve problems and make a difference in their communities.  If you are using OpenGov in an innovative way- share your story with me so I can get the word out!  Or, if you’re interested in learning more about how you can put OpenGov to work for you, send me an email at Rlewis@opengov.com.  I love learning from and educating customers and non-customers alike!

PS, If you’d like to hear it from the source, you can watch the recorded webinar here.  Also, I hope you’ll join me for our June webinar on Budgeting. Click  here to register and join me on June 29th!

Rebecca Lewis is the OpenGov Training Lead and has spent the last 9 years in various forms of public service. Prior to training customers at OpenGov, she coached and developed teachers at Teach for America. She received her MPA from New York University and BA from Michigan State University.

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How to Monitor 311 Requests in OpenGov

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Your government may have a dedicated 311 response team, or each department may have its own staff for relevant requests. Regardless of which approach your government takes, management needs a way to keep tabs on requests, monitor ticket status, and determine whether tickets were closed on time or late. It’s also important to analyze trends in 311 call causes.

For example, you may want to see the leading causes of a 311 report by department, and loading your 311 data into OpenGov and keeping it fresh can give you these insights.

Once you’ve created your 311 report in OpenGov (feel free to contact your Customer Success representative for help!), follow the steps below to gain insights into leading causes by department:

  1. Open your 311 report and click on ‘Open Requests’ in the chart to review all open service requests
  2. Drill into the year 2016 to see this year’s performance
  3. In the “Broken Down By” menu, select “Department ” to see which departments are responsible for the open requests
  4. Click on a given department and select “Ticket Description” in the “Broken Down By” menu to what the top causes for service requests

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Tom is a Product Manager at OpenGov.  Before joining OpenGov, Tom worked at JPMorgan Chase as a Developer and Data Analyst.  Tom enjoys eating at McDonalds and wearing fluorescent pants.
 

Simplify Grant Reporting with OpenGov Intelligence

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Tracking grants in a busy Finance Department can be a challenge. To help finance professionals with this difficult issue, a breakout session at this spring’s California Society of Municipal Finance Officers (CSMFO) convention covered grant procedures. The presenters highlighted several types of grant reporting that you can simplify with OpenGov. For example, OpenGov streamlines these three reports:

  1. Annual Organization-wide Grant Summary Reports
  2. Monthly Grant Reimbursement Reports
  3. Lifetime Grant Closeout Reports

OpenGov Intelligence can automatically assemble your revenue and expense data for your grant reporting needs at no extra cost with standard reporting features, by taking advantage of two ‘secret’ techniques:

  • Make sure grant activity is recorded in the general ledger with unique coding in department/division, project, activity, or grant segments so reporting can easily sort and filter as necessary.
  • Create saved views for each grant. This one-time exercise allows your teams to go directly to their grants every month or quarter for reimbursement and internal reporting.

Annual Organization-wide Grant Summary Reports

Grant history is requested for many different purposes such as budgeting, audit, and follow-up on grant applications. The City of West Sacramento’s Five-Year Grants History exemplifies the type of summary you can set up with a Saved View in your annual template report. We show it below as a chart, table, and Excel export. You can easily export views in any of these formats from OpenGov.

Exported as a chart

Exported as a table

Exported into Excel

Monthly Grant Reimbursement Reports

The table below is an example of a monthly reimbursement data set for Nobles County, MN CWG Monthly Grant Report. You can include history and budget, as well as the current period’s revenues and expenses, in a data table or Excel export. We show an example of the table report below:

Lifetime Grant Closeout Reports

Grant closeout reporting is among the final stages of every grant’s life cycle. Here, the City of West Sacramento, CA’s Grant Closeout Report is supported by table or Excel exports of the revenues and expenses by year, showing the grant fully expended and in balance. This time we show it in Excel, although of course you can also generate a table:

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Helping Customers Learn From Each Other

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One of the most exciting things about my work is helping our customers share best practices and learn from one another. Take for instance in March, when we hosted the webinar “The 7 Coolest OpenGov Reports.” We brought three customer panelists together – Trevor Minyard from McKinney, Texas, Erika Langhans from St. Petersburg, Florida, and Ellen Schroer from Bainbridge Island, Washington.

[During our practice run-through, a natural conversation arose when Erika asked Trevor, “How did you get your City Council to be okay with putting up all of that information on your OpenGov public site?”  (If you’ve ever visited McKinney’s transparency site, you’ll see one of their public reports is Payroll Register). Trevor then discussed his openness with data and his rapport with public officials (though he said it’s not always easy in the world of city politics), and gave both Erika and Ellen some great ideas to use in their respective cities.

In the space of customer education and training, not only do I get to facilitate these interactions, but I get to learn as well! That’s why I am really looking forward to our next webinar on May 17th: Success with OpenGov at Any Size. We’re bringing together three different customers from some of our smaller-sized governments together to share their success and best practices with OpenGov.  

I hope you’ll join in the conversation with:

  • Andrew McCreery, Finance Director in Mt Lebanon PA
  • Connie Maxwell, Assistant Finance Director in Burnet, TX
  • Brian Dehner, City Administrator in Edgewood, KY

Click here to register for this event on May 17th at 1pm Eastern/10am Pacific.

Rebecca Lewis is the OpenGov Training Lead and has spent the last 9 years in various forms of public service. Prior to training customers at OpenGov, she coached and developed teachers at Teach for America. She received her MPA from New York University and BA from Michigan State University.

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OpenGov Expert’s Corner: Two Ways You Can Customize Report Views

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Use these tips to tailor your OpenGov report views to suit your needs.

1. Turn on/off Totals in Tabular Reports

It doesn’t always make sense to add things up annually or for multiple years in a table. For example, totals may not tell you much when displaying average 311 response times by month.

Follow the steps below to control whether a report displays totals:

  • Open up the report settings in a tabular report
  • Go to the General Panel
  • Scroll down to see the ‘Show total amount’ toggle
  • Select the option you need

2. Control pro-ration in Monthly Reports

Users may want to see how their YTD expenses or revenues compare to the full budget, or they may want to prorate the information based on the number of months that have already elapsed.

OpenGov lets you control whether their budgets are prorated when navigating a report. In a Monthly/Current Year report, follow the steps below to proration your reports:

  • Open report settings
  • Go to the Monthly Report options
    • Note: in public reports, this setting is in the Advanced panel
  • Scroll down to see the ‘Budget Proration’ toggle
  • Select the option you need

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Tom is a Product Manager at OpenGov.  Before joining OpenGov, Tom worked at JPMorgan Chase as a Developer and Data Analyst.  Tom enjoys eating at McDonalds and wearing fluorescent pants.