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California Takes a Proactive Leap in Local Government Transparency

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California Takes a Proactive Leap in Local Government Transparency ( )

When California State Controller John Chiang took office in 2007, increasing transparency and accountability were among his top priorities. One of his goals was to increase public access to local government financial data.

Fast forward to 2014. Public access to local government financial information has never been so accessible, powerful and intuitively organized, thanks to the California State Controller’s Office open data website, By the Numbers. The website provides 11 years’ worth of detailed financial data from 58 counties and over 480 cities in California. While providing financial reports in PDF files since 2011, the real leap came when the Controller’s Office made this data searchable and comparable.

The seeds for this website were planted many years ago, but it took a back seat over other open data projects along the way: First, the Bell, California scandal prompted the Government Compensation in California website to move up on the priority ladder. Next came the passage of Proposition 30, a temporary sales and income tax increase; in the interest of transparency, the Controller’s Office created on the Track Prop. 30 website, which shows where those tax dollars are being allocated.

The By the Numbers website is designed to help people – citizens, municipal finance officers, analysts, planners, reporters, and anyone else with an interest in local government finance – gain deeper insights into the fiscal health of a particular county or city.

California has taken a proactive leap in governmental transparency … without regulatory influence.

In addition to providing access to county, city and state and local pension system financial reports, By the Numbers is also a powerful tool for comparative studies. Tim Schaefer, Senior Finance Advisor in the State Controller’s Office, provided the following example: When a new City Council member in Milpitas, California (population: 70,892) took office, he wanted to see what other cities of similar size spent on annual public safety expenses.

By the Numbers makes this type of comparison a piece of cake. The website allows users to select up to 5 cities (or 5 counties), a beginning and end year (from 2003 through 2013), and data grouped by category (revenues, expenses, liabilities, construction, bond indebtedness – to name a few!). It also allows analyses that can signal red flags – i.e., trends or trajectories that defy the norm.

An added bonus: the site features a variety of charts (“Interesting Charts”) that show cumulative comparative data, such as “Total City Revenues and Expenditures – 5-Year Trend” and “Defined Benefit Systems: 11-Year Trend of Total Assets.”

Not surprisingly, the website has been well received, not only by its numbers (no pun intended), but also according to positive user feedback. Because of the fluid nature of this and California’s other open data websites, changes can be made on an ongoing basis to keep them up to date.

California has taken a proactive leap in governmental transparency – and has done so without regulatory influence. And what California starts, other states often follow. It would come as no surprise to see California pioneer a new level of transparency in local government finance among states across the country.

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