#LocalGovSolutions: Financial Transparency Your Citizens Can Understand

Posted on October 28, 2015

In the continuing #LocalGovSolutions series, Trevor Minyard, City of McKinney, TX, reflects on lessons learned from increasing financial transparency. 

The City of McKinney, TX has a history of achieving excellence in financial reporting. Despite the normal changes to financial services staff, city council elections, and explosive growth, McKinney has achieved 30 years of consecutive awards from the Government Finance Officers Association for its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and Budget Book. In addition, McKinney holds a Platinum level designation for transparency from the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. These accolades are a testament to how well McKinney discloses its financial information, but the question remains; can we do more? Our answer is absolutely!
An Interesting CAFR?
If you are reading this article, you have likely opened a CAFR/Budget Book, or perhaps help create one. All the necessary information about McKinney’s financial condition is contained in the 152-pages of our FY2014 CAFR (for the curious). That doesn’t mean said information is immediate, interactive, or easy to understand to the non-government professionals. Our team resolved to change that. We committed to providing reports that are fresh, and palatable to our citizens.
Push Me/Pull Me
downloadBefore diving into how McKinney moved in the direction of understandable transparency, it’s important to set a framework for data and information in general. The sharing of information in today’s world can be summed up in two forms: pushing or pulling.
Information is pushed when the data provided isn’t interactive, or malleable. Newspaper articles are an example. A writer for a newspaper  is telling a story in a static, final format. Corrections or errors can only be addressed in next week’s “oops” section in the back.
The second form of data sharing is when interested parties pull their own data from a given source. Twitter’s search function is an example. Right now, as I enjoy my morning coffee, I can search Twitter for anything that is on my radar, and the platform will produce a string of recent and older tweets related to the topic.
Both aspects of data and/or information sharing have their place. Increasingly the public expects access to detailed, accurate, and complex information within a few clicks. In the local government arena this is challenging, but government employees signed up to serve their constituents by providing solutions for such challenges.
In McKinney, we wanted to provide a way for citizens to look at a report and know immediately what that report was showing. In addition, we wanted citizens to have the capability within our reports to pull the information that was important to them. That meant making things searchable and interactive. One of our first major initiatives was a budget vs actual report: McKinney’s Monthly Financial Report
The report above instructs the end-user how to manipulate information, and then let’s the user have at it! You click on a function, such as Police and learn the divisions in their whole budget. If you are concerned about budget vs actual performance, the tool allows calculations for percentage change for common metrics. These are two examples of the power behind making data easy to understand and fully accessible to the public. If you’re like me, you can spend quite a bit of time running through the filtering options, and financial metrics.
The Launch
stimpy-red-buttonLaunching a transparency platform is a time intensive process. We spent time acknowledging we wanted more financially transparent, to what you have see in the link provided above. Below is a listing and short explanation of the stages we took to get from beginning to end. This process will look different for each entity; however I believe you’ll find it useful.
Establish Buy-In

  • Departments must buy-in to the benefits of a transparency initiative. This could be from the perspective of the CFO or Finance Director, or something that is the mission of an analyst. Either way, internal buy-in is the first step to progress.

Formulate Attainable Goals

  • McKinney has seven interactive, public facing transparency reports. Those reports were not created at the same time. We evaluated what were the most important items for our citizens first, and then progressed to other areas we wanted to address.

Share Your Vision With City Management and/or City Council

  • The leaders of the city (city manager, city council) call the shots. The team that has “bought-in” needs to share the vision for easier to understand transparency to city leadership.
  • Create an advocate in the manager’s office by communicating your team’s passion for transparency.

Be Practical

  • Be practical from a calendar and budgetary perspective. If you are in the middle of an audit or in the throes of adopting a budget, spending time formulating a strategy to create a transparency portal may be counter-productive.
  • Consider the budgetary aspect of implementing a portal. These considerations will set the foundation for a successful transparency initiative.

Internal Champion vs External Assistance

  • Once you have the green light, decide on whether a full-fledged, interactive, searchable platform can be created in-house or will require some outside assistance.
  • McKinney used a web-based platform called OpenGov, Inc., which allowed us to focus more on the vision behind the data, as opposed to creating the template for the data.

Unveil Your Transparency

  • Set a launch date, talk about that date, and do everything you can from a public relations and media perspective to publicize the launch of your new transparency initiative.
  • As your team is communicating that more interactive levels of transparency are coming, conduct internal testing. The worst case scenario is publicizing a date, and not being ready. Host departmental trainings to work out the kinks and avoid such a misstep.
  • With everything hitting on all cylinders, host some good-ole’ fashioned Town Halls! Give the citizens a first person, interactive look at the tool in action.

Keep The Message Going

  • With the launch behind you, continue to keep management, council, departments, and most importantly the citizens informed about new functionality or options in your transparency platform/initiative.

Last Word
City staff must remember that it’s an ongoing mission. When an organization moves towards progress, they must commit to continuing that progress; our citizens deserve it. To illustrate that commitment, below are a few examples of how the McKinney has provided interactive reports to continue our transparency progress for our citizens:

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