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Five Elements of a Good Financial Transparency Site

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Melanie Purcell
November 21, 2014

Purcell novOver the past 10 years, the demand for more effective and immediate financial information has expanded. This year marks the first year that all 50 state governments actively maintain financial transparency sites. By making their financial information available on the Web, the states aresaving significant amounts of time and money, as highlighted in a recent U.S. PIRG report. The report analyzes and ranks each of the state’s financial transparency sites, which begs the question, “What makes a good financial transparency site?”

The goal of financial transparency is to make the data accessible, meaningful and actionable for the public and government staff. Whether you’re considering developing your own or evaluating a vendor solution, make sure your financial transparency site scores well on the following five criteria:

1.         Comprehensive

A financial transparency site needs to answer more questions than it raises. A complete financial transparency site should include:

Multiple years of data. Data becomes information when it is presented in a meaningful context. Multiple years of financial data can provide that context.

Expenses and revenue data. Similarly, to provide a comprehensive look at your financial data you have to look at all the different types of financial information. A single dataset only tells a fraction of the story. For instance, expense information becomes more meaningful when you can compare it to revenue.

 2.         One-Stop

Your financial data shouldn’t live on multiple websites or services. Many governments maintain different documents or tools for each fiscal year or dataset with the site placement dependent on the organizational function, rather than with related documents. Placing the data in silos limits the ability to see trends or analyze the information. The more related data you co-locate on your site the more useful it becomes for citizens and staff.

For example, different departments of the same organization, such as agencies within a state, may have the authority and desire to present their financial information on their respective sites. But to be most effective, a single presentation of all financial data provides a detailed and comprehensive view for the user without requiring specialized knowledge of the organizational structure.

3.         Easy to navigate

The key to a successful transparency site is to make it easier to navigate. The purpose of these sites is to bring access and meaning to the data, which requires a strong user-interface. Here are some questions to ask about the user experience:

Can you explore the data?

Financial data is most engaging when it is organized intuitively and can be navigated with a single click. A good transparency site should invite exploration and help citizens become acquainted with their government. It should be attractive and logically presented to encourage active use.

Can you search the data?

Financial data is complex. It can be challenging to find a specific account type within a division of a department that uses resources from a particular fund. Finding the specific financial information related to an operating question often requires knowing details about the operating processes or organizational structure of the government. Powerful search functions and data filters can make it a breeze to find the needle in your financial data haystack.

4.         Reflects Chart of Accounts and Organization Structure

Each government is uniquely structured, as evidenced by their Chart of Accounts (CoA). Good transparency sites map to a government’s CoA. It should also include a clear identification of the services your organization provides.

Presenting the Chart of Accounts in an easily understood format that also relates to common knowledge or operating structure, particularly with departments, helps users of the site begin to understand the complexities of government financial management. By presenting multi-fund, restricted accounts and the different types of elements, stakeholders can see the different buckets of funds with different purposes and restrictions in an easy-to-understand visual format.

5.         Useful for Staff

Transparency sites are often perceived as an accountability or communication tool for citizens, but they can be so much more. Staff should find the transparency site of use directly in their work as well as be comfortable assisting others to navigate through it.

Does it answer staff questions?

Elected officials, senior executives and department heads need access to budget and financial data more than citizens do. Your staff should be able to use the transparency site to answer their own questions or inform decision-making quickly and easily. It should enhance understanding of the financial information provided through the accounting or enterprise system for decision makers and internal stakeholders, if not actually replace more time consuming and complicated reporting methods.

Does it save staff time?

The goal of these sites is to provide quick access to financial data. Answering information requests from citizens or researching data for internal operations is a time consuming task. A good transparency site should reduce information requests and save your staff precious time finding the information they need. Users should be able to find information quickly and without needing detailed explanations of how to read the data.

Once you are confident the site is accurate and timely, comprehensive and structured appropriately, is it easy?

A good transparency site makes everyone’s lives easier, especially the staff building and maintaining it. It should be an extension of the everyday life activities, not a major project or added burden. It should have intuitive maintenance, simple updates and make your data work for you rather than you work for data. Ideally, the site becomes one of those tools which, a few months forward, you cannot imagine doing without.

AuthorMelanie Purcell is a government finance specialist at OpenGov.com, and has served local governments in Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, Nevada and Tennessee as a budget and finance expert. With over 20 years’ experience in government management, organizational design and budgeting, Melanie is an author and frequent speaker about local government fiscal crises and tools for integrating human resources, organizational design, and budgeting into local government management. Email: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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