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OpenGov Voices: Local Government Financial Transparency: Scaling It Up

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Joffe_Headshot_1Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions (PSCS) which applies open data and analytics to rating government bonds. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. You can contact him at marc@publicsectorcredit.org.

Groups like OpenOakland and Open City have done some great work in making local government financial data more accessible. Machine readable data sets and visualizations help citizens better understand how their tax money is being used.

Because these efforts typically require volunteers and/or visionary political leaders, they tend to focus on individual governmental units. Since the U.S. has some 80,000 local governments, it is unlikely that these standalone projects will give us anything like nationwide transparency of local government fiscal data. Building a nationwide open data set would be very beneficial because it would allow users to compare their city or county to comparable units across the country. It could answer such questions as “how does our public safety spending stack up against other cities with similar population and crime rate?” It could also allow us to compare the fiscal condition of cities in order to see which are headed in the direction of Detroit, Harrisburg, San Bernardino and Stockton – toward bankruptcy.

ca_credit_scoring_mapA Mountain View California based company, OpenGov.com, is working with several local governments to place their fiscal data online, in graphical form. If successful, this firm could greatly increase the amount of open government financial data – for those governments that are willing to subscribe to their transparency service.

But what about situations in which a local government is unwilling to cooperate and volunteers are unavailable? This universe is likely to include some of the more fiscally irresponsible governments in places that lack tech-savvy, engaged citizens.

In these cases, we can collect and report data on behalf of those governments. Recently, my group, Public Sector Credit Solutions, collected legally mandated financial reports from 260 city governments in California. We extracted standardized data from these reports and placed the information online for free here. We’d love to work with other groups to roll out this type of fiscal transparency to other types of local governments (like counties and regional transportation districts) and to the rest of the country.

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Live from OKCon

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OKCon logoI suspect/hope that most of this blog's readership is still asleep right now, but for those who rightly begin their day with a review of Sunlight blogs over their morning coffee, let me encourage you to tune in to the proceedings here at OKCon. So far we've already heard great talks from Rufus Pollock and Glyn Moody, and Richard Stallman is beginning a talk as I post this. I'll be speaking around 8:30am EDT, and plan to say a bit about the e-Gov cuts, #savethedata and the lessons that other open data organizations can take from the episode.

If that's too early for you, I suspect that the video will be archived. And while you're at it, have a look at the OKCon schedule -- there's lots of good stuff coming up!

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