City launches transparency website

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This screenshot gives an idea of what people will see when they open up Sandpoint’s new financial transparency website.

SANDPOINT — Curious about the city's finances? You can now access six years of financial information online, right down to the detailed transactions.

The city partnered with OpenGov to launch the new online tool that brings visibility, openness and accountability to its financial operations. 

“We are really excited about the partnership with OpenGov in terms of what we have been able to put out there, where they're going as an organization in their evolution, and where we are going as a city,” Stapleton said. “We really see great alignment between the two organizations.”

The launch of OpenGov ties in with the strategic priorities laid out by City Council during a strategic review process earlier this year. A report, “Aligning for Impact,” was published through that process, outlining citizen engagement, communication, data base decision making and transparency as many of the key priorities. Stapleton said the financial transparency piece is the first step of many.

“With two new council members coming on board, the plan was, the plan continues to move into a very robust five-year strategic plan,” Stapleton said. “This will be the first ever for the city.”

OpenGov was founded about five years ago in the Bay Area, said Joe Roualdes, head of communications with OpenGov, was in town this week to provide an in-depth look at the capabilities of the online tool.

“We started to see money drying up in California, and realized most governments were using Excel spreadsheets to manage their budgets,” Roualdes said. “That works, but I think, as everybody knows, it’s time consuming, it's really cumbersome and it's particularly error-prone.”

Each department within a government tends to operate in its own silo with its own goals, he said. So what the OpenGov Smart Government Cloud technology does, is it goes into each of the departmental silos, pulls all of the data out of those systems and puts it in one place.

“The benefit of that is when you pull all the data out and you put it in one place, you can then deliver products on top of that to help the government be more effective and more accountable,” Roualdes said.

The company has three product sets — budget, operational performance and citizen engagement. Stapleton said Sandpoint will initiate the budget product next year as the process begins for the 2019 fiscal year. For now, the concentration is on the citizen engagement piece, which Roualdes said is intended to help the government communicate more efficiently with the community.

While OpenGov serves hundreds of governments across the country, Sandpoint is one of only six serving as beta testers for the citizen engagement product. Roualdes said the company was looking for governments that are “progressive in their thinking and understand the importance of transparency” to test the product. The other cities include Bernalillo County, N.M, Mt. Lebanon, Pa., Winchester, Va., San Rafael, Calif., and Long Beach, N.Y.

“If you look nationally, the public trust is at an all-time low, so one of the things we were excited about is the folks here in Sandpoint were all in on transparency from the mayor on down,” Roualdes said. “So it seemed like a great opportunity to get input on how we can build this product and make it more effective.”

OpenGov recently acquired a company called Peak Democracy of which the goal is reaching out to community members and gathering feedback.

In the near future is, when someone visits Sandpoint’s financial transparency website, they will be able to click on any of tiles on the first page and it will pull up a story with text, visuals, multimedia and data. It will help Sandpoint tell stories around what it's doing, why it's doing it and the outcome that was driving it, Roualdes said. At the bottom, people in the community will be able to provide feedback. That information can then be used by Sandpoint to build out plans and budgets, he said, and essentially, lead to a “much more effective and transparent government.”

In the meantime, however, there is plenty of data to peruse on the website.

"If somebody has something specific they want to find, they can find it in here," Stapleton said.

When the portal is opened, the first thing someone will see are the tiles, with photos and links that say, for example, "What are the city's revenue sources?" and "What has the city collected in 1 percent local option tax?" Each department has their own tiles, including the police, fire and Parks and Recreation.

To find out what the police budget is spent on, click on the respective tile. Immediately, it is obvious by the graph that comes up that the majority of the budget is wages and salaries. The current year will show up, but the filters to the left of the screen allow the user to go back as far as 2011.

Want to know how much of the salaries and wages were regular hours, overtime or holiday? Clicking on a section of graph, or the related category to the right of the screen, allows the user to dive deeper into the category. Scroll down to the bottom of the page, and the user can browse a summary of the expenses, as well as list of all transactions.

And while some people enjoy pie charts, others prefer line graphs or bar graphs, so toward the top right of the screen, there are several options for whichever graphing style the user might like. Pulling up a bar graph will also show all six years, from 2011 to 2018, which is helpful for Sarah Lynds, deputy director of the city's finance department.

"The hardest part for financial, at least in my past, is that usually you can pull one year of data," Lynds said. "If you want multiple years, you have to go in and recreate spreadsheets. This is awesome because you can pull up the trends."

She used the fire department uniforms as an example, because the data on the website indicates the uniform budget has tripled over the past few years. Stapleton also pointed to a trend in increasing overtime in the police department since 2013, which she said is something they can look at and is the "very purposeful intent" of the online tool.

"That is where we can have the dialogue with the community, with the council, with the leadership in terms of what's happening, why it's happening, and better understand how to manage it ... so it really can help gauge those conversations," Stapleton said, adding that the tool is only as effective as who is using it and what they do with it.

"We put this tool out there, but the efficacy of it really depends on the citizens engaging, taking a look at it, too, really looking into our information. That is the intent, not to put something out there that we can check off a box that we put our financial information out, but to put it out in a new way and hope our citizens engage and take the opportunity to look through the data, formulate questions that they have in terms of what we are doing, and ask the questions."

The new website can be found via the city’s website at sandpointidaho.gov and clicking the "Financials" button to the left, or go directly to the site at bit.ly/2hiuDjs.

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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