The Old Customhouse, Monterey, CA
California’s Historic Landmark Number One
City Finances and the Promise of Data Visualization
By: Stephen Goldsmith – firstname.lastname@example.org (This post originally appeared on Stephen Goldsmith’s Better Faster Cheaper blog on Governing.com.)
New tools that make it easy to find and view government financial data are enabling big gains in efficiency and transparency.
For local governments, financial reporting is about more than simply ensuring that the numbers add up. Public officials also have to be able to communicate the data in a way that is both understandable and meaningful to target audiences, whether it’s city officials making decisions about resource allocation or voters making decisions about whether to trust their governments.
That’s the challenge for municipalities: How can local governments provide a comprehensive, yet accessible medium for distributing budgetary and other financial data? And from a practical standpoint, how can city leaders make this happen with limited resources and staff capacity?
Increasingly, the solution is data visualization. By linking enterprise performance systems to tools that provide instant access to current and historic financial records, more and more governments are allowing almost anyone to view and manipulate public data via vivid pie charts and line graphs. Users can even export raw numbers or high-impact graphics for use in meetings and communications materials.
In Boston, for example, the city’s performance management system, Boston About Results, uses data analytics and visualized scorecards from the software company SAP to evaluate agency operations and improve the delivery of services. Other municipalities have opted to partner with industry experts such as the Sunlight Foundation, OpenSpending and OpenGov to bridge the gap between city finances and public awareness.
In the San Francisco Bay area, Sausalito and Atherton are among the latest to join a network of more than 100 cities that have adopted OpenGov’s platform. Sausalito is integrating data visualization into every aspect of city administration, including its recent labor negotiations. In the past, compiling labor costs from various agencies was an immensely arduous task that required sifting through hundreds of Excel worksheets to document the town’s history of employee salaries and benefits. Charlie Francis, Sausalito’s administrative services director and treasurer, reports that he can now review and visualize annual labor costs in a matter of minutes.
Francis thinks budget visualization has the power to reshape the landscape of local governance while improving efficiency and public understanding. On the efficiency side, he says the town has seen remarkable savings in staff hours and monetary costs since adopting its transparency platform just a few months ago. And several Sausalito city council members have taken to pulling up budget data on their tablets in the middle of presentations with residents, civic leaders and other stakeholders.
“When it comes to responding to a citizen requests about government spending, there is nothing more powerful than being able to access the entire city’s financial records with just a few clicks,” says Francis. “What is even more exciting is the fact that this is the same information that residents can access from the comfort of their home, and that citizens feel empowered to go back to the software and find answers to their other questions about government spending.”
Atherton City Manager George Rodericks agrees: It all comes down to transparency. “The traditional process of financial reporting leaves the overwhelming majority of residents out of the loop,” he says. “We needed a new medium that would not only be user-friendly but also equip regular citizens with the tools needed to ask the right questions about how city officials are spending their tax dollars.”
With a three-member finance department, Atherton is always seeking opportunities to streamline its financial management process, and Rodericks says this platform is enabling him and other city staffers to do just that. Rather than having to personally respond to every request for financial information, for example, city officials now list frequently asked questions on Atherton’s city website and link them to corresponding charts.
“This technology has transformed the way that residents interact with local government,” says Rodericks. “On one hand, the open government platform is saving us hundreds of work hours by reducing the time that staff spends sorting through files of accounting data. On the other hand, as more citizens are using this technology we are starting to see many new inquiries come in from people interested in learning more about how local government operates.”
This, of course, is a great problem to have. By providing residents with the tools to visualize and work with government data to meet their individual needs, financial data visualization is not only increasing government transparency and accountability but also enhancing the ability of local governments to be more responsive to citizens’ needs.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
By: Justin Lewis, Chief Information Officer, Smith Moore & Associates
I’ve been on a kick for the past couple years trying to be more productive. I found that I had a hundred things outstanding with dozens more coming in and while outwardly I was doing fine, internally I was floundering. I needed a solution and my personality dictates to find this solution, I need to do research. I consumed a lot of material in a fairly short period of time and then tried everything I learned all at once and then kept what stuck around. One of those items is a tool called Trello.
Before we get into what and how Trello works, I need to explain what a kanban is. Kanban is a word in Japanese that literally means signboard or billboard. Developed at Toyota, kanban is a method to control a workflow. For me, it’s a system of tracking a lot of moving parts and making sure they get done (and I look like a super-star).
So how does it work? Pretend you have 5 baskets on your desk. The one on the left is In and the one on the right is Completed. Anytime a new task comes in, you throw it in the In basket. When you’re done with that task, put it in the Completed. Pretty simple! The three baskets in the middle is how you deal with these tasks when life decides to be life. Let’s call those baskets Next, In Progress, and Waiting. When you come in first thing in the morning and open your email, anything that requires work on your part gets put on a piece of paper and thrown into the In basket. Now, sort through the In and find all the fires you need to put out now. These get moved into Next, sorted by importance. Then, take the first item in your list and move it into In Progress. Decide what needs to happen. Do you delegate it, or do you do it yourself? If you delegate it, write that person’s name on the card and put it in your Waiting basket. If you’re doing the work, maybe you need some questions answered first. If so, write down who you sent the question to and put it in your Waiting basket. If you finish it, put it in your Completed basket.
Tasks are going to come in while you’re working. Any task that doesn’t need to happen RIGHT NOW gets put into In. If it needs to happen RIGHT NOW, then move it to In Progress and get working!
Repeat this process through the day, and tomorrow when you come in, scan each of your baskets and see what needs to be followed up on and what should be shifted in your workflow.
This may feel like a lot of wasted time shuffling paper. However, if you adhere to the process you’re not going to drop any tasks. You will also have a very good idea of how much work you have so you’ll know when to bring in help or when to say no. To me, though, paper and baskets are too cumbersome to work with when the vast majority of my work is already in the computer. Surely there’s a piece of technology that can handle this for us. That technology I’ve already mentioned: Trello. Here’s a screenshot:
Trello calls each task a “card” and cards have numerous features. You can assign due dates, add comments or attachments, create checklists, color code, copy them or sign up for email reminders that notify you if there is any activity on the card. You can also assign a card to anyone else who has a Trello account. This lets you delegate items to other people, but still keep a handle on what’s happening with that item. If everyone on your team decides on the same baskets to use and how to use them, then you can very quickly go through a large set of tasks or tackle a complicated project with a lot of moving parts.
The Professional Standards & Recognition Committee has recently started using Trello to track the incredible amount of data that comes about when processing the CSMFO Budget Awards. Last year 10 volunteer committee members worked with 75 volunteer reviewers to process 129 awards. The vast bulk of this process was managed via email and can be very time intensive for the volunteers involved. This year we’re using a Trello board with 8 “baskets” to track this process. We have yet to see the first award in the Completed basket, but early testing has been very successful!
I hope this article has given you some ideas about how you can rearrange your workflow to keep better track of your projects and ultimately be more productive. There are other ways to handle this, and lots of ways to modify what I have shown you today. The final answer is to find out what works best for you. If you want to try Trello* (it’s free!) create an account with them and you can be up and going in minutes. If you have any questions, I’m happy to help and I can be reached at email@example.com or at the CSMFO office, 877-282-9183.
Notes and Extras:
* There’s a lot of other kanban related software. I have only used Trello. Kanban Tool and Kanbanize seem nice.
The process I explain here is my own mixture of kanban and David Allen’s Getting Things Done. You can learn more about kanban and Getting Things Done on Wikipedia.
2014 CSMFO Annual Weekend Training Seminar
Date: Friday, November 21 – Sunday, November 23, 2014
Place: Hyatt Place San Jose Downtown
282 Almaden Blvd.
San Jose, CA 95113
Phone: (408) 998-0400
Registration Fee: $425 Full Rate / $350 Commuter Rate
Registration Deadline: Friday, October 31, 2014 (Registration has not yet opened for this yet. )
Attendance will be limited to 40 people and full registration includes two nights lodging, meals and seminar materials. All fees must accompany your registration and be received by the October 31, 2014 deadline. There will be a $35 processing fee for any changes or cancellations made prior to the October 31, 2014 deadline. No refunds, changes or cancellations will be processed after that deadline.
Please Note: This is a professional educational training session limited to finance officers and their appropriate staff members. The weekend is planned to net each attendee approximately 20 hours of professional educational training and the opportunity to enhance interaction with fellow members by remaining “in community” throughout the weekend. Meals (lunch and dinner) along with morning and afternoon breaks have been planned to accommodate average needs; should you have special dietary or personal needs, please indicate on the registration form following.
Receipt of your completed registration form and fee prior to the October 31, 2014 deadline will assure your place at the seminar. Room Reservations will be made on your behalf. Confirmations will be made by e-mail no later than November 1, 2014. Upon check-in at the hotel, each participant will be required to show ID and present a credit card for incidentals. Overnight parking is available for a nominal fee. Questions regarding the seminar should be directed to Mark Uribe (805) 388-5358.
The Career Development Committee is excited about presenting this “Annual” training opportunity and anticipates a fulfilling, rewarding experience for all. We look forward to seeing you in San Jose!!
Want to help shape the future of local government financial reporting?
“Use Webinars for Team Development”
Are your training budgets tight? Looking for ways to rally your team and learn together?
The CSMFO webinars provide great professional development opportunities for teams. That’s what John Adams, Finance Director in Thousand Oaks, is doing with his team.