A Guide to Online Financial Transparency.

Author:Mack, Mark

Online transparency is an evolving practice that can be understood in different ways. Many states and larger local governments have adopted open data initiatives, posting large datasets online for use by other governments, non-profit organizations, private-sector firms, the press, and the public. Others focus on overall government transparency, posting documents such as budgets, audits, or contracts, granting online access to meetings, making it easier to provide comments and interact with government officials.

Fiscal transparency is particularly importation because financial resources affect all other aspects of government administration. Financial transparency is not one or more individual actions but a framework that encompasses the information a government shares, the actions it takes, and the culture it adopts. Its key components are: * Sharing data that tell a story.

* Sharing data proactively.

* Being honest and fair in the way data are shared.

* Taking a neutral stance rather than advocating any position or agenda.

* Fostering trust and financial sustainability.

* Providing current, timely data.

* Curating data.

* Making sure data are contextually accurate.

* Promoting accountability.

* Fostering a culture of openness.

THE PATH TO TRANSPARENCY The most common catalyst for financial transparency is probably a general desire to demonstrate efficiency and effectiveness in government administration, and to build trust. Most governments want to show the public that government is both good and the best approach to managing shared resources. Many governments look to online financial transparency as a way to educate the public about what government does and how it arrives at the decisions it makes. Other motivations include the desire to improve public service and accountability, and to maintain or improve professional ethics. Governments that concentrate on financial transparency report improved legitimacy and support, and general improvements in their organization's reputation. General public sentiment is another strong catalyst for increased financial transparency--after studying what people wanted, a number of governments found that online financial transparency was the best way to achieve it.

The point of transparency is to make financial data--including revenues, expenses, budgets, debt, and investments, as well as strategic initiatives that may have financial implications --available in a manner that is both timely and relevant to users, helping them understand the government's allocation of finance resources.

Governments share financial data in a way that provides context and financial data that allow users to define the information they would like to discover and then interact with that information in different ways. In this way, the financial data are used to tell a story--stakeholders aren't left to sort through an enormous pile of undifferentiated data on their own.

Online financial transparency can also be understood as the actions that help governments share fiscal information such as revenues and expenses in ways that allow both finance professionals and average citizens to use them, improving overall confidence and trust in government. (1) Financial data that are shared online can also be supported offline via traditional budget hearings, citizen engagement meetings, town halls, and other in-person interactions. The finance department doesn't always have all the data needed (e.g., KPIs for the number of roads paved), so if information is stuck in silos, this will need to be addressed.

The best way to look at online financial transparency is through the lens of the audience. Governments need to think about what an interested resident or other stakeholder would want...

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