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Public Service Recognition Week will have concluded before this issue of PA Times online reaches our readers, but recognizing the value of public employees and “connecting citizens with their government” is more than a theme, its vital to the future of public administration.
The trend of open government and transparency as a way to connect citizens with their government is often touted as the “holy grail” in order to regain public trust; however, the public’s conception of openness and transparency, or what expectation taxpayers desire is often debated.
As the concept of open government continues to gain favor with the public, efforts by government many times focus on providing budgetary and spending information, but does not address the over-arching need of taxpayers. That need requires a connection to government that includes a complete, clear and concise method of communicating what government programs are about, what the challenges are, what the accomplishments are and showcase these with easily understandable budgets.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) published Following the Money 2013 in March. The report emphasizes that in 2013, “for the first time, all 50 states provided some checkbook-level information on state spending via the Internet.” Clearly, transparency of spending data is a focus for government, but transparency websites, show benefits for the taxpayer and praise efficiencies and savings. For the average taxpayer trying to connect and make sense of their government, good stewardship records could be another means to attract taxpayer interest beyond spending data.
As governments launch with great fanfare new websites with data, more data, and still even more data, and replace hard copy reports with web pages, the problem still remains, data is not information. Even states with proactive approaches to engaging residents by providing spending information, such as Texas, which scored the only “A” in the U.S. PIRG report and Massachusetts, which scored an “A-“ with its Massachusetts Open Checkbook website, cannot easily tell the taxpayer how well programs and services are performing by simply providing spending data. Maine’s Open Checkbook, which scored a “C-“in the U.S. PIRG report, sees its limitations and plans to include “revenue data and other details related to budget expenses” for the taxpayers.
How well more detailed financial data will improve the taxpayers’ experiences is unknown. It’s not clear how much spending information is useful, or how taxpayers will use the information. Even with transparency websites, taxpayers do not have answers to other important questions about the spending data: is it audited, does spending include all of my government, how well are programs and services performing, and lastly, what are the challenges ahead for my government.
One school of thought on the transparency trend thinks data should be aggregated and presented in user-friendly type reports and distributed via many channels including websites. This group argues “data” that is not organized is not truly “information.” This group believes the public wants context, so data in raw and granular form can be understood better. Efforts mentioned above by Texas, Massachusetts and Maine hope to address that taxpayer need.
“Have you ever tried to figure out how well your government works from a pile of reports?” asked Relmond Van Daniker, AGA Executive Director. “Transparency must be for the taxpayer. The Citizen-Centric Report model provides the necessary information to the taxpayer on their government, the measurement of success, the challenges—no matter what they may be—and a simple accounting of tax dollars. The information—good and bad—needs to be explained in a clear, concise and complete way.”
The AGA designed the four-page “Citizen-Centric Report” to promote public sector accountability and transparency, to encourage good government and increase citizens’ confidence in their government. The model has caught on at each level of government with many submitting reports to the AGAs peer-review award program. The attraction of this model is the simplification for the taxpayer. Often titled “annual” reports, they summarize the government entity, the performance and achievements, strategic plans and understandable budget and spending. Surprisingly, even federal agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U. S. Coast Guard produce CCRs. The reports provide enough insight and content to hold the reader’s attention, unlike our many other voluminous government reports, which are not often written in a manner that has the public in mind.
Although costs to assure better transparency are legitimate, a contrast between transparency websites and the CCR model is the CCR has little to no cost versus the hundreds of thousands of dollars some websites cost to operate annually. The use of the CCR and other so-called “popular reporting” models receive mixed opinions from some in the financial trenches of government, those that enjoy the good read of a comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), which is a set of government financial statements requiring in depth knowledge of public accounting and terminology.
However, connecting citizens to their government is more about giving the citizens the meaningful information they want. If residents of, say, Texas want to connect with their state government, would they start with their 269-page CAFR, exploring the thousands of transactions in the Texas “Open Checkbook,” or the four-page: A Report to the Citizens Texas?
As the U.S. PIRG report points out, transparency is not a partisan issue, neither is good government, so the continuing effort to connect the public with their government has elected officials and public administrators on the same side. Ultimately, if government wants to connect with citizens, the means in doing so must meet the public’s expectation. A “citizen-centric” report may be an answer.
Author: ASPA member Craig C. Hall, MPA, is an associate faculty member for the University of Phoenix and deputy director/CFO for a state agency in Massachusetts.