This guest blog is by ELGL All-In Member Brent Stockwell, the ACM in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Seven years ago, Harris Interactive conducted a poll which found that:
“the public feels strongly that government has a responsibility to provide understandable financial information to the public.”
That year, Scottsdale, Arizona, launched its first citizen-friendly annual report – an attempt to distill thousands of pages of financial documents into a four-page report that people were interested in reading.
With a strong focus on openness and transparency, Scottsdale is committed to providing financial and performance documents on the internet.
However, all that transparency really adds up!
In Scottsdale, like other communities, our operating budget is 624 pages, our capital budget is 200 pages and our comprehensive annual financial report is 210 pages. That’s 1,034 pages of annual financial documents – precise and accurate to be sure, but easy for the public to consume and understand? Not so much.
Because trying to sort through all this information can be overwhelming, Scottsdale committed to summarize the highlights in a snapshot report designed to:
- give citizens a better understanding of what their government is doing and what it spends their money on;
- provide easy access to key information without having to sort through pages and pages of documents and websites;
- serve as resource to begin the conversation and a portal into in-depth discussions and input with citizens about their community.
In 2010, we were looking at best practices for annual reports. We decided we wanted a report that was short, understandable, easy-to-read and informative. The Scottsdale city auditor recommended the Citizen-Centric Reporting initiative. We looked at the guidelines and sample reports and it was clear this was a perfect match. We released our eighth report inspired by those guidelines this fall.
The biggest challenge we face is deciding what to include, and what to not include. It’s tough to summarize the work of a large organization in just four pages. We’ve found that with concise writing and clever design, a lot of information can be provided in just a few pages — without being overwhelming.
Staff like the process because it doesn’t require them to do anything additional. We pull the information for the report from information already prepared for the adopted budget book and the comprehensive annual financial report. The only work is streamlining and simplifying the content, and doing the graphic design.
Since starting the annual report, we’ve also added four-page reports on community demographics, city leadership, a community profile and an infographic that visualizes the services and facilities available in the community. We include each of these at the start of our budget book. We use the graphics in community presentations throughout the year, and for every new employee orientation.
The report is primarily intended to be an electronic document and is very easy to view on a tablet.
This year we’ve decided to take the report and share it piece by piece on social media to introduce it to a new audience.
Our graphic designer took each of the graphics and formatted them for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We then prepared a series of 30 messages to share via social media.
On Twitter and Instagram, our top posts have been about our citizen survey results, and on Facebook the top post has been the number of non-local flights at Scottsdale Airport. Posts are averaging a minimum of 20 likes on Instagram, the Twitter campaign is averaging 3,800 impressions and 21 engagements, and the daily average Facebook reach has been 2,800 people.
As our guiding principles, we’ve used four concepts outlined by Richard Sambrook, a founder of BBC.com, who defines effective information visualization as being premised on:
- simplicity (complex notions simplified to save time for reader);
- transparency (visual honesty and responsibility in sourcing);
- creativity (design that is memorable and understandable);
- sociability (easily shared and improved)
The project has morphed into a great summer project for our city management interns each of the past three years. A primary project is to work on the reports and take it to a new level.
We encourage other cities to issue similar reports.
The risk is low, and it’s a great way to summarize your organization’s results in a simple, easy-to-read format.