Making Democracy Work Better (on the Boulevard)

by Michelle Martineau

construction signs at local park

My kingdom for an online project page

There’s a nice, tree-lined, highly trafficked, three-mile loop just down the road from my house that attracts walkers, joggers, bikers, and a handful of gazelles (multitasking parents that run eight-minute miles with twins in strollers and dogs in tow — and never break a sweat). I digress. 

This loop, affectionately known as “the Boulevard,” also happens to be the main thoroughfare connecting me to my preferred grocery store, coffee fix, and various other essentials. So when I started noticing orange cones and yellow caution tape pop up along my route over the summer, I got curious. And, I did what anyone would do. I consulted my all-knowing smartphone.

A quick visit to both the state DOT and the city websites came up short, so I started playing keyword roulette. I searched by street name, neighborhood, bike paths, 2019 construction projects, capital improvements — you name it, I searched it. Then, after a few frustrating minutes, I gave up. “Forget it. It’s none of my business,” I thought, noting that the guy running with the tricked-out stroller was somehow already on his second loop.

(Of course, you know that wasn’t the end of the story.)  

As someone who works for a company that has published transparency profiles for every civic entity in the country, I can’t help but see potential for ClearGov’s solutions everywhere I look. In fact, one of ClearGov’s project communications pages would have worked nicely in this instance — but alas, the city in question has yet to claim their free ClearGov profile. So, back to my story. 

Soon heavy equipment and piles of rubble began appearing at every cross street for six blocks. Eventually, over the course of several weeks, it became clear that workers were installing ramps at each sidewalk entrance and exit — all the way up one side of the Boulevard and all the way down the other. “That’s cool,” I thought. “I wonder how long this will take.” 

I quickly Googled sidewalk repairs, sidewalk ramp construction, sidewalk improvements, ADA compliance … Nothing. Soon helmeted toddlers on bikes joined the guy with the stroller and the dog — and they collectively sped past me like Swala’s herd in The Lion King. I abandoned my search, picked up the pace, and tried not to look winded, thinking all the while that it would be so easy for someone to just post a project page, like one of these created by the City of Morgantown, West Virginia (Sigh).

A week passed

I made my way to the Boulevard one fine Tuesday morning only to find that one side of the road was being torn up — not just the sidewalks this time, but the road. This. Was. Glorious.

I forgot to mention that despite being home to no shortage of swanky six-figure properties, the Boulevard is riddled with recurring potholes that are both stealthy and decidedly vindictive. Many a Pirelli has met its match on the Boulevard of broken asphalt, so when I realized they weren’t just smoothing over the pockmarked pavement, but actually tearing it up, I got excited. I took pictures. I texted relatives. And then I wondered, “How long will this take? How long will the road be closed? Does this mean that I have to go to the other supermarket?” 

Yes, I Googled again. I couldn’t help myself. I mean repaving this particular, frequently traveled stretch of road is pretty big news. Somebody’s earned bragging rights. Surely there are pictures and timelines and maps posted somewhere online. After all, inquiring would-be runners who live off the beaten path in low five-figure homes want to know. Nope. I found nothing online. 

Now, maybe I was just searching the wrong terms. I’m willing to admit my search skills may be just as sketchy as my exercise routine, but if I have trouble finding the information, it stands to reason that others do too. Unlike interested citizens who live in the Borough of Crafton, PA, I remained sadly uninformed.

Suddenly, a sign appeared … (cue the dramatic music)

Days later? I don’t remember for sure, but one day an attractive sign appeared at the top of the path that runs up the middle of the Boulevard. It read emphatically, “Improvements Coming Soon!” followed by,  “We kindly ask you to please stay off the path at this time” and “Area closed during construction.” To recap, the sign was not about the aforementioned repaving project nor the sidewalk repair project, but about an entirely new project involving heretofore unknown “improvements” to said path. 

While there was a lot of good information on the sign, something was still missing. Like, what kind of improvements are coming? How soon are they coming? How long will they take? Who’s paying for all these improvements? And finally, why is everyone ignoring this nice sign (see image above)?

It turns out that the sign was light on details and a bit premature. Improvements to the path wouldn’t begin for another couple of weeks, so everyone (gazelles included) simply walked or gracefully bounded right past the sign until temporary fencing was installed. 

There was no website URL posted on the sign, no phone number to call, no QR code to scan for more details (despite the fact that everyone on the Boulevard sports their smartphone like a fifth appendage). In short (okay not that short), what we had here was “a failure to communicate.” Cool Hand Luke references aside this was just another missed opportunity.

The lesson? If you’re a town or school official and you’ve got capital improvements going on, Bravo! You should be bragging about it — not just to the press and not just in town meetings —but also online where most people today go when they have questions about anything and everything.

Your constituents want to know what’s going on. In fact, some (not me) will go so far as to call you. You don’t want people calling you — not about things like bike paths and traffic detours. Anyway, it takes minutes — seriously, just minutes — to populate a project communications page on ClearGov. And, you can create as many as you like. Then, inquiring residents like me can visit the page online and subscribe to receive automatic email notifications every time you update the timeline or add more details. Pretty sweet. And, pretty easy. It’s practically gazelle-like. Check it out

ClearGov Launches First Client Advisory Board

by Sarah Webber

Engaging in the candid conversations that help shape our solutions and drive innovation

We recently invited a sampling of our most active clients to participate in a newly established Client Advisory Board (CAB). The CAB will meet biannually to discuss product development, provide feedback on new features, and share their expertise and experience with the ClearGov executive team and each other. 

Seven clients (in fact everyone we asked) graciously agreed to be members of this inaugural board, volunteering their valuable time and candid insights to help ClearGov deliver best-in-class solutions that truly address the challenges of modern local governments. 

Members include treasurers, analysts, town managers, and CFOs from civic entities across the country — all serving diverse communities with varying needs and resources. By convening this particular mix of users and executives we hope to get a better understanding of the unique requirements and pain points experienced by people at all levels of the organization.

Since ClearGov Insights and ClearGov Budgets are both very much a product of continuous client (and prospect) feedback, inviting local governments to join us at the drawing board  just makes sense. The CAB is really a way for us to formalize what’s been happening all along — organically — since our CEO first founded ClearGov back in 2015. 

What was true then is still true now. The best ideas and inspiration for products and new features are inevitably born out of conversations with the doers — the people who interact with the public, crunch the numbers, balance the budgets, plan the projects, and execute the vision. And the more we engage directly with doers like you, the more we learn and the better equipped we are to solve for your specific needs.

Of course, the first rule of CAB is a little like the first rule of Fight Club (“you don’t talk about it”), but for very different reasons. The board spent much of the first session discussing future ClearGov technology that’s both proprietary and not quite ready for prime time … yet. That said, keep your eyes on ClearGov in Q4. Exciting developments are coming your way.

In the meantime, we’ll be kicking off a similar CAB with school officials later this year to zero in on the increasingly data-heavy demands placed on today’s district administrators. Between complicated funding formulas and trying to keep pace with ESSA requirements, education professionals have their hands full. We’re excited to invite them to the table and to hear firsthand how they’re using our solutions, and to understand what we’re doing well and what we could be doing better. 

We believe establishing CABs and holding regularly scheduled meetups helps us stay true to our mission to build a community of modern, transparent, data-driven governments. In the end, your success is our success. 

Tuesdays with TED: August Edition

by Michelle Martineau

What you can do with 30 days, 3 years, and a little wishful thinking

It’s TED time again. One Tuesday a month, the ClearBlog team curates a small, satisfying sampling of talks that we think you may find relevant. Welcome to the August edition.

No matter how old you are or your role in life, it’s likely the last week of August still fills your belly with back-to-school butterflies. You don’t have to be a student, teacher, or parent to experience the nervous anticipation of a new start.

The calendar says it’s time to shake off summer, whether the thermometer agrees or not. After Labor Day, all bets are off. The phrase “beach day” vanishes from the weathercaster’s vernacular and safe sun times get replaced with layering recommendations for the bus stop. Time to turn a new page.

The good news is that come September, we all get a chance to participate in this new beginning — we get a fresh start — however vicariously it may be. So go ahead — splurge. Get yourself a new “back-to-school” notebook, maybe a fresh pen from the supply closet, and spend 25 minutes with three inspiring TEDsters who’ll show you what you can do with 30 days, 3 years, and a little wishful thinking. Enjoy.

Watch: Try something new for 30 days

In this very short talk, technologist Matt Cutts reveals how small, sustainable changes made over the course of 30 days can be transformational. Who knows? You watch a 3-minute TED talk today and you could be summiting Kilimanjaro this time next year. It could happen.

Watch: How to fix a broken education system … without any more money

Admit it. We had you at “without any more money.” In this 14-minute talk, Seema Bansal, partner and director of social impact at Boston Consulting Group, explains how her team was able to implement systemic, large-scale change (think 15,000 schools) using existing budgets and resources. Find out why she says anyone can “move mountains” when given the right levers.

Watch: What adults can learn from kids

According to 12-year-old blogger and published author Adora Svitak, “in order to make anything a reality you have to dream about it first.” The older we get, the more rooted in reality we become and the less likely we are to embrace “childish” ideas. The leaders of tomorrow have something to say and in this entertaining 8-minute talk, Svitak makes a compelling case for why we all have a vested interest in listening.

Our One Year Old Is Something of a Prodigy

by Michelle Martineau

Picture of hands clapping in celebration for ClearGov Budgets

But don’t take our word for it …

In case you haven’t heard, ClearGov’s youngest product officially turns one next month. And like most parents, we couldn’t be more proud. 

Born out of necessity, ClearGov Budgets is the product of hundreds of conversations with finance committee members and local administrators who confided to us their frustration with the annual budgeting process. We heard over and over again horror stories about spreadsheets with broken formulas, sketchy paper trails, and legacy accounting systems built for everything but the unique number-crunching needs of local governments. We knew there had to be a better way, and when we couldn’t find it we started building one ourselves. The rest as they say is history.

Since launching ClearGov Budgets last year, we’ve had nothing but positive feedback from early adopters. And, now, with a full budget season in the books for many clients, we decided to circle back and see if budgeting with ClearGov has changed how they feel about the process. Spoiler alert: It has — big time!

“It’s cut the time we spend budgeting IN HALF!”

The Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect.” Concedo. Three different clients told us just last week alone that using ClearGov helped them create, approve, and publish their annual budget in record time. 

Sean O’Brien, special assistant to the finance director for the Town of Natick, Massachusetts, told us that ClearGov has been very well received by his finance team, “ClearGov Budgets saves our administration and committee members significant time!” 

Natick officials now use ClearGov to collaborate throughout the annual budget process in real time. In addition to promoting internal transparency between department heads and administrators, ClearGov has eliminated the version control headaches O’Brien struggled with in the past.

One of the key reasons we built ClearGov was to offer towns like Natick a more modern, cloud-based alternative to manually managing and merging spreadsheets — a common practice that’s become increasingly cumbersome and inefficient, especially for the unique needs of municipalities and school districts. While programs like Excel are good for organizing and calculating static data, they’re not made for real-time collaboration — and they certainly weren’t built with local governments in mind. 

As anyone who has used Excel across departments knows, things can get complicated fast and it’s very easy to break a formula. One false move — one wrong cut and paste — can derail the entire budget process. And, trying to find the error and correct it can set you back hours, days, or even weeks.  

Case in point, Georgetown administrator Michael Farrell was managing as many as 43 linked spreadsheets — and multiple versions to boot — before switching to ClearGov back in February. Farrell said when it came to budgeting with spreadsheets, “the whole thing could go wrong, and often did.”

Now, the town administrator simply builds the budget online, inviting contributors to create, share, and collaborate in one shared master file. Team members can easily comment and attach relevant supporting documents to any line item and ClearGov automatically creates an audit trail. 

Natick’s Sean O’Brien said this ability to annotate significant budget changes and include relevant attachments was a game changer for his team as well. “In the past, changes and new initiatives were captured as footnotes in a presentation. Now, all the info we need is on one line and we can easily open it up for review in our hearings.” 

Getting everyone on the same virtual page

O’Brien said that using ClearGov has led to “more productive and efficient public hearings” for the Town of Natick. Budget meetings used to involve thumbing through paper printouts and jockeying to get everyone — both literally and figuratively — on the same page. Now the administrative team simply connects a laptop to a large TV monitor and goes through the budget, line item by line item, so everyone in attendance can easily see changes as they’re made. 

Image of ClearGov Budgets - click to learn more

No Pain, All Gain

Another town administrator confided that he practically felt guilty about how much easier the annual budget process had become using ClearGov. We totally get it. When you no longer have to spend your days neck-deep in spreadsheets looking for that one rogue cell that’s messing everything up, it sort of feels like a dereliction of duty. It’s not. The expression, “no pain, no gain” is an exercise motto after all, not a measure of effective budgeting. In this case, the easier and more efficient routine generates the strongest, most sustainable results. 

Eliminating the frustrating and painful part of your work day is a good thing. It frees you up to focus more on the strategy part of budgeting and less on the tedious, manual tasks that eat away at your productivity (and your sanity). Plus, think of all the other stuff you could move off that perpetually simmering back burner and onto your suddenly less crowded plate. No guilt. No pain. Nothing but gain.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can streamline your annual budgeting process using ClearGov Budgets (our precocious little one year old), now is the perfect time to request a demo. We’re offering special birthday incentives to any local government that signs up by the end of the year! Don’t miss out.

 

 

Tuesdays with TED: July Edition

by Michelle Martineau

Open-source government, data visualization, and why mayors rule

Tuesdays with TED, a new feature on the ClearBlog, showcases three TED Talks we think may be of interest to our friends in the public sector. Owned by a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation, the TED organization is on a mission to spread great ideas (insert sound of water drop creating glorious ripple effect here). 

TED is currently in its 35th year and, to date, they’ve hosted more than 2500 talks. That means if you were to binge watch TED for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, it would take you two months and an unfathomable amount of popcorn to get through them all. 

The topics are wide ranging, the perspectives enlightening, and the ideas are almost always universally relevant — and impossibly entertaining. So many great ideas, so little time. Where to begin …

One Tuesday a month (starting today), the ClearBlog team will curate a small, digestible sampling of talks that we think are especially relevant to local governments. Ranging in length from 14-18 minutes on average, we hope these short, powerful videos provide the perfect break in your day and the inspiration you need to drive productive change in your community — and beyond.

Let’s kick things off with three oldies but goodies: 

Watch: Demand a more open-source government

Open government expert Beth Noveck says, “simply throwing data over the transom doesn’t change how government works.” Find out how governments that combine participation and collaboration with transparency are effectively channeling the flow of values and expertise to and from citizens to make better decisions that benefit everyone.

Watch: The beauty of data visualization 

Here, data journalist David McCanless explores the power of data to change perspective — and ultimately behavior. He argues that absolute figures in a connected world are not as true as they could be. To see the full picture, you need to connect relative figures to other data — you need context.

Watch: Why mayors should rule the world 

In this 2013 talk, political theorist Benjamin Barber makes a compelling case that the road to global democracy runs through cities. Why? Cities are “profoundly multicultural, open, participatory, democratic, and able to work with one another.” Mayors are pragmatists and problem-solvers. In short, they get things done.

Employee Spotlight: Co-Workers in Keds Getting Coffee

by Michelle Martineau

Coworkers in Keds Getting Coffee - header image

Seven years ago, Jerry Seinfeld took his idea for an unscripted talk show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to the web. The program is exactly what it sounds like. Two comedians drive around in a fancy sports car and get coffee. 

The premise is that by taking them out of their element (a club with a live audience) they can talk more freely about their craft and whatever else comes to mind. Ten seasons, three networks, and more than 70 episodes later, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is still on the road.

At ClearGov, we thought this sounded like a good way to learn more about our own merry band of co-workers, many of whom are amateur comedians in their own right. Since we don’t have a budget for fancy sports cars, we swapped Keds (think walking shoes) for corvettes and hit the streets of Maynard in pursuit of caffeine and candid conversation.

Shamelessly stealing from Seinfeld, and drawing inspiration from ClearGov’s president Bryan Burdick, we’re pleased to launch Co-Workers in Keds Getting Coffee. Bryan recently invited every member of the ClearGov team to join him for daily one-on-one walks back in April. If you know anything about East Coast weather this was a bold and optimistic venture. In the end however, the conversations proved enlightening even if the climate didn’t always cooperate. So, we figured why not keep the momentum going.

Every other month, we’ll pry one of our co-workers away from their computer to find out what makes them tick. Our goal on the blog is to introduce clients and prospects to the people behind the ClearGov mission  — so you can get a taste of the diverse talents and passions “ClearGovernors” bring to the table. Find out what gets us out of bed in the morning and why we’ve all rallied behind the idea that we can make democracy work better — both for folks who work in the public sector and the residents they serve.

ES, Episode 1: Meet my co-worker, Linda Dunbrack.

  1. What do you do at ClearGov?

Linda was among the first to join the ClearGov team initially as a contractor and then as a full-time employee logging untold hours mapping publicly available fiscal data to the ClearGov platform. Given the fact that ClearGov now has transparency profiles for every civic entity in the U.S. — more than 40,000 in all — it’s safe to say that Linda has what is technically referred to as “mad data skills” and clearly knows how to get stuff done.

In her current role as director of data on-boarding, she heads up the team responsible for translating complex spreadsheets into easy-to-understand infographics. Linda and her colleagues prepare client-supplied financial data for import and integration, building out powerful client dashboards that mirror a client’s chart of accounts. 

  1. Do you have any experience in the public sector?

Prior to joining ClearGov, Linda was extremely active in local government. She moderated FramGov, an online political forum, for more than a decade, and served on the Framingham Finance Committee for six years before that. She also narrowly lost a bid for a seat on the Charter Commission in a very tight 2016 election. Of course, the town’s loss was our gain because Linda brought her ideas, experience, and mad data skills to ClearGov, along with a deep and abiding commitment to improving local government. 

  1. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Linda said she always enjoyed computer science as a kid and remembers one of the first programs she ever wrote had something to do with Israeli-Palestinian relations.  (This means that while I was eating Skittles and coveting my neighbor’s MTV Linda was pursuing peace in the Middle East. I’ll see myself out.)

  1. Let’s have some fun. You’ve been banished to a deserted island. Oddly, you have the foresight to take one book with you. Which book do you take and why?

Outdoor Survival Skills” by Larry Dean Olsen. By now you’ve realized that Linda is pragmatic. She didn’t just pick any survival guide either. She picked the one how-to that very specifically documents Native American survival techniques practiced by the Anasazi. Needless to say, if this desert island has cliffs Linda will carve out a lovely shelter replete with functional pottery and stunning waterfront views in no time.

  1. Logistics aside, what album and movie would you bring along? 

“I’d take the Fleetwood Mac Rumors album because I like every song and every song is different and features different artists.” Makes perfect sense. Variety is the spice of desert island life. And, what movie? “The Princess Bride, no explanation necessary.” Agreed.

That said, The Princess Bride is the perfect movie choice for someone who works in client success for two reasons: 1) the word “inconceivable” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and 2) Linda’s answer to client requests is always the same, “as you wish.”

Okay, that’s it. Our first Co-workers in Keds Getting Coffee is in the books. In the interest of full transparency, we did not in fact get coffee. Linda led the way to a bike path that I didn’t know about, past a brewery I was completely unaware of, to an undisclosed canoe put-in. Who had time for coffee? This is a seriously good gig and I officially owe Linda a beer (and now I know just the place to get one). 

Speaking of good gigs, we’re hiring. Check out our careers page for all the deets.

 

PSA for Local Governments: There’s Something Missing from Your Financials

by Michelle Martineau

Man working at computer thinking

(And you’ll never get public consensus without it)

At ClearGov, when we talk to local governments about transparency, we often hear a familiar refrain, ‘Thanks, but we’re already very transparent. We post our annual budget right on our website for everyone to see.’

They’re right, of course. With all the recent attention around OPEN data laws, most local governments dutifully post a PDF of their annual budget somewhere on their website — and that does technically check the transparency box. But, there’s a big difference between being transparent and being clear.

People today are awash in data — and simply piling more on isn’t helpful. That’s especially true when it comes to communicating budget information to taxpayers. There’s more to transparency than dutifully documenting and publishing line item after line item for posterity.

To be clear, you need to go beyond posting the annual 300-page PDF to your website, and actually distill all those numbers into something more digestible and more accessible to the average citizen. By “distill,” I mean that you have to extract the essential details and put them in context so people understand. If that sounds like a lot more work for you, it’s really not. Please hear me out.

Without context, what do all of those numbers really mean?

For example, you can tell taxpayers you spent $50M on education, but without a frame of reference, do they understand what that really means? Is $50M too much? Too little? Suppose you tell those same people that you spent 25 percent less than similar towns and your students scored 10 percent higher on assessments. That’s valuable context. Now they have a frame of reference and can begin to make an informed decision about what they value and how they want their tax dollars spent.

The goal of transparency is not only to inform citizens, but to foster understanding and in turn build trust. Your annual budget answers who, what, when, and where. Context adds the missing why and how. In the end, it helps you tell a more complete story — one that residents can appreciate and therefore may be more inclined to support.

Information overload won’t educate people about the truth, it will only obscure it.

Presenting your financials in a clear and compelling format is in everyone’s best interest. When citizens don’t understand where their tax dollars go, they lose trust and they get angry. They make phone calls. They show up at town meetings (the few that actually have time on a school night). They post on social media. They spread misinformation (often unintentionally, but the results are nevertheless destructive).

You work hard to plan for your community and make the difficult decisions about who gets what services, how much they get, and who pays. The public deserves to know the rationale behind those decisions. After all, without context, it’s unlikely they’ll arrive at the same conclusions you did. And, if you don’t give people the whole story, they’ll look elsewhere to fill in the gaps. That means someone else will tell your story for you and that rarely ends well.

In a word, “context” is the whole reason our CEO founded ClearGov in the first place. Four years ago, a simple attempt to cast an informed vote on a proposed tax increase in his town led him down a fiscal rabbit hole. After digging through the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) for answers, he came up empty handed. In frustration, he invented a platform that aggregates and translates complex fiscal data into clear, actionable intelligence for government agencies and the residents they serve. Most importantly, the platform allows government officials ample opportunities to easily add valuable context to their story.

Since then, ClearGov has created infographic-based transparency profiles for every civic entity in the U.S. — including yours. All told, our database now spans 40,000+ municipal profiles and displays $15.7 trillion in local government spending. Cities and towns can claim and customize their ClearGov profiles for free or subscribe to a premium model with all the bells and whistles. In the current age of misinformation, hundreds of local governments are already leveraging this model to drive transparency, improve public trust, and build consensus.

Let's be clear, claim your free transparency profile.

ClearGov lets you add essential context to your financials.

Because ClearGov has already built fully operational profiles for every local government, the hard part (translating your financials into compelling, infographics) is essentially done. You supply a simple report and we update your numbers for you. In fact, you can publish updated numbers more frequently than you do now. Instead of posting a PDF once a year, you can actually update the infographics every quarter or every month if you like.

ClearGov makes adding context easy too. Here are three ways you can use your ClearGov profile to fill in the gaps on your financials — and drive better understanding and engagement in the process:

1. Add benchmarking: Compare your performance against relevant communities that provide similar services. In the past, this was a time-consuming and costly venture that required expensive consultants. Not anymore. ClearGov’s proprietary system ingests accounting data from local governments and automatically standardizes the chart of accounts so you’re always comparing apples to apples.

2. Add commentary: Sometimes a simple sentence or two can clarify a figure and reveal the rationale behind spending, funding, and debt. Charts are great for illustrating trends, but they can’t explain the factors driving the trends. That’s when strategically placed commentary can shed valuable light on important background data that would otherwise be missing.

3. Incorporate non-financial metrics: Other factors, like the impact of changing demographics, can provide valuable insight into why revenues are down or why public school attendance is up. Use them.

In the end, we think transparency (with context) makes everybody’s job easier — yours as a public servant and your constituents’ as informed citizens. Just to drive it home, we made this nifty fact sheet for you: 10 Ways Fiscal Transparency Makes Everybody’s Job Easier. Download, print, share, enjoy.

Newspaper Closures Affect Local Government and the Public Bears the Burden

by Michelle Martineau

newspaper-closures-affect-local-gov
Image by Bucol from Pixabay

The decline in local reporting means fewer watchdogs, a less informed electorate, and higher financing fees

These days fewer and fewer residents show up at public meetings, an occurrence we’ve lamented in this space before. More troubling perhaps is the fact that in many towns across the country fewer journalists are in attendance.

Among its most critical roles, a free press acts as a watchdog for government, helping to make democracy more transparent and to hold civic leaders accountable to the public they serve. It used to be that if you couldn’t attend a town council meeting, you could read about it the next day in your local paper. Today, for an astonishing number of communities across the U.S., that’s simply no longer the case — and we’ve only just begun to assess the figurative and literal costs of this growing, gaping void.

In the last two decades, local newspapers battling declining readership have been forced to jettison their print editions and lay off staff in droves. Newspaper employment has fallen by 55 percent since the year 2000 — and a staggering number of small-town papers have shuttered their offices all together.

A recent University of North Carolina (UNC) study reveals a net loss of almost 1,800 local newspapers since 2004. In fact, UNC has published an interactive map that shows precisely how communities in all 50 states have been affected by these closures. You can actually drill down to the county level to uncover the prevalence of news outlets (or lack thereof) in your area. Even in locations where there are still newspapers, there may not be enough reporters to adequately cover the beat let alone engage in true investigative journalism.

Without a reliable source of local news, citizens and lawmakers can’t make informed decisions about the important issues that affect daily life. Beyond that, there’s another less obvious but nevertheless concerning consequence of the recent decline in government oversight — and that’s higher financing fees. It seems lenders get nervous when no one is keeping tabs on borrowers.

A recent study by finance professors Pengjie Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy found that municipal borrowing costs increased by 5 to 11 basis points following a newspaper closure.  And, the costs stemming from those higher interest rates is ultimately borne by taxpayers.

Can transparency help curb the cost of borrowing?

Local newspapers hold governments accountable, and in the process help to keep municipal borrowing costs low, which ultimately saves taxpayers money. While a fiscal transparency site is certainly no substitute for local reporting, it does provide a measure of self oversight that not only helps local governments build public trust and drive engagement, but may also allay some of the concerns of wary lenders. After all, putting everything on the table is a show of good faith.

When a city or town proactively opens up their data for public consumption, it shows they have nothing to hide. It also gives resource-strapped news organizations trying to cover the local beat an easily accessible online source of truth they can use in their reporting. That said, there is a difference between being transparent and being clear. And, publishing your financials as a non-searchable PDF is neither.

At ClearGov, we’re making it easier for local cities, towns, and school districts to clearly convey important fiscal, demographic, and community development information to the public, the press, and potential lenders. Our interactive, infographic-based, public-facing profiles are designed to help local governments clearly communicate important information to their constituents in a way that makes sense to everyone. And, we continue to expand our profile capabilities to include more relevant, in-depth data every day and provide more ways for interested citizens to stay informed.

For example, when a local newspaper closes, there is less publicly available information about community projects. So, ClearGov recently added templated project pages to its platform, enabling local officials to easily share timelines, budgets, blueprints, and more in one centralized location. By syndicating the content on their government website and sharing links on social media, local governments can get the word out about important community initiatives to interested constituents. The public can even subscribe to these pages to receive automated notifications every time a project detail gets updated.

Finally, as reported by Andrew Westrope in a recent Government Technology feature, ClearGov has also recently partnered with highly trafficked news sites like Patch and Ballotpedia to help local governments better reach, inform, and engage more residents. That means communities with an active ClearGov transparency site now have a new way to get their content in front of more digital consumers than ever before. Also, syndicating municipal data to these sites will provide journalists with important ClearGov metrics they can use in their local coverage.

Brock Bair Joins ClearGov Executive Team

by Chris Bullock

Gov-tech startup taps serial SaaS exec to spearhead go-to-market strategy and advance mission

brock-bair-joins-cleargovMaynard, MA (5/21/19)—ClearGov, a leading provider of affordable transparency, budgeting, and forecasting solutions for local governments, is pleased to announce Brock Bair has joined the company’s executive team filling the newly created role of vice president of marketing. Bair brings 20+ years of product marketing and demand generation expertise in the software as a service (SaaS) space, and will be charged with honing and communicating the ClearGov vision, brand, and solution set as well as expanding ClearGov’s presence across channels.

“Brock is a strategic marketer with a proven track record of driving results for high-growth startups,” said CEO Chris Bullock. “We’re pleased to welcome him to the ClearGov team and we’re confident in his ability to advance our mission to help local governments function more efficiently and effectively.”

Brock is a hands-on, data-driven marketer with extensive experience leading venture-backed tech companies to long-term growth. With his background in brand awareness, lead generation, and sales enablement at startups like Pattern, EventNut, and Smart Lunches (to name just a few), Brock is uniquely qualified to lead and mentor ClearGov’s newly expanded marketing operation.

“It’s exciting to be part of a mission-driven company like ClearGov and to be able to play a role in making democracy work better,” said Bair. “ClearGov has an accomplished marketing team in place already, and really strong leadership as well. I’m thrilled to join the team and look forward to executing scalable strategies to expand our growing community of transparent, data-driven, modern governments.”

 

About ClearGov

ClearGov is on a mission to build a community of transparent, data-driven, modern governments. ClearGov provides a full suite of turnkey, cloud-based solutions to help local municipalities drive transparency, streamline budgeting, and better engage residents.  ClearGov’s award-winning platform is currently used by hundreds of communities across 26 different states. For more information, visit www.cleargov.com.

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PRESS CONTACT:

Jena Skivington
585.507.5733
jskivington@cleargov.com

Cloud-Based Budgeting vs. Spreadsheets

by Michelle Martineau

cloud-based-budgeting-vs-excel
Making a case for a modern approach to managing government spend

Beyond the basic advantages that all cloud-based solutions offer, like anywhere/anytime access and timely, free updates, there are a whole host of reasons why it makes good fiscal sense for finance administrators at local governments and school districts to swap their unwieldy spreadsheets for a more modern approach to budgeting. Let’s get into them.

If you spend your days building out your budget in the spreadsheet netherworld that rhymes with ‘oh well,’ you’ve learned to live with (and manually work around) a process that is inherently inefficient. While we applaud your perseverance and creativity, there’s a better way — and it will not only save you time, money, and aggravation, it will free you up to do what you actually went to school for and what you’re trained to do.

Spreadsheets weren’t made for real-time collaboration or long-term forecasting for that matter — and they certainly weren’t built with municipalities in mind. They were made for organizing and calculating static data. And, that’s fine — if your line items never change and you create, review, and approve the budget all by yourself. Otherwise, the process can be … hellish.

Cloud-based budgeting is different (and not just because clouds are closer to heaven):

•  It automates the tedious, repetitive, manual tasks that stall your progress, increase your margin of error, and waste your time.

•  It’s scalable. Whether you manage a million dollar budget or a billion dollar budget, capacity is never an issue.

•  It’s collaborative. It gets everyone (committee members, councilors, leadership) on the same page — literally. Everybody works in one shared master worksheet, so there’s just one source of truth, not twenty disconnected spreadsheets.

•  It’s real time, meaning your budget worksheet is always up to date. All changes, updates, and comments are displayed as they occur and archived for future reference.

•  It’s secure. The cloud, unlike your desktop, provides backup and security in the event of natural (think hurricanes) or manmade (think coffee in your keyboard) disasters.

•  It’s affordable. You don’t have to buy special hardware or multiple seat licenses for your team. You can take advantage of the latest updates as soon as they become available, instead of waiting until you have money to upgrade everyone. And, you can be up and running fast — with ClearGov Budgets there’s virtually no downtime.

Chances are you’re not averse to modernizing your budget. You’d probably prefer to spend your days on money management and strategy, instead of mindless data entry. You just need to make a compelling case for why purchasing software services for you makes fiscal sense for your community. We hear you. And, we think efficiency, scalability, accuracy, transparency, security, and affordability are pretty compelling reasons to embrace cloud-based budgeting. But, if you’re still not convinced, here are eight very specific ways ClearGov Budgets beats spreadsheets. Feel free to share it with someone you love.

cleargov budgets beats excel