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.

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

Like It or Not, Your Story is Already Being Told

by Michelle Martineau

modern governments connectedIt’s time to step up and control the narrative

The fact that data can be disseminated quickly and widely is both a feature and bug of the Information Age.

Consider that in 2012, Arab Spring activists in Iran and Egypt effectively used social media to spread the very real news of citizen uprisings to an anxious world collectively on the edge of their seats. The following year, radio host Alex Jones picked up and amplified a conspiracy theory on Twitter and YouTube that a mass shooting at Sandy Hook was staged. Feature meet bug.

If that doesn’t give you pause, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently found that false news (including conspiracy theories and urban legends) travels faster, farther, and deeper through Twitter than true news. In the words of Barack Obama, “it’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the very technologies that empower us to do great good can also be used to undermine us and inflict great harm.”

When it comes to social media then, the best defense may just be a good offense. In a time when perception is reality, civic leaders — just like their counterparts in the business world — need to step up and own their story.

Misinformation spreads fast … And, it doesn’t take much for a tiny spark on Twitter to fuel a raging wildfire.

While you can’t be expected to police incendiary social banter and monitor Facebook Groups for falsehoods, you can shape public perception with your own narrative — backed by facts. Maintaining an open and transparent online presence can serve as a critical means of building support and dousing flames before they spread. Better still, you may prevent fires all together.

Six reasons to claim your free public-facing ClearGov profile

One free, easy way to get started telling your story is to claim your ClearGov profile. ClearGov aggregates and preloads demographic and financial data from various public sources including the U.S. Census, the state auditor’s office, the Department of Education, and more to create easy-to-digest, public-facing profiles for each community. In fact, we’ve already built profiles for 40,000+ cities, towns, and school districts across the country, including yours.

If you’re a district leader or government official, it’s easy to claim your ClearGov profile and it’s free. Just go to www.cleargov.com and enter the name of your city, town, or district to view your profile. You’ll see a blue “Claim This Page” link right in the banner.

Once you claim your page you’ll be able to unlock additional profile features that enable you to:

1. Take a deeper dive into revenues and expenditures

2. Update the financials with your own current data

3. Pick who you want to compare your town to

4. Add your town seal to your profile banner

5. Respond to public comments

6. Download a free “Transparency Center” button to use on your town’s website

Taking a proactive stance on transparency is key to building public trust and support. Start the process today by claiming your free ClearGov profile.  

The new realities of public leadershipNOTE: The preceding post contains excerpts from “The New Realities of Public Leadership: How to Adapt and Thrive in the MisInformation Age.”  For more tips on how you can start leveraging the power of the internet and other information technologies to drive transparency and build public trust, download the full ebook here.

Can Modern Cities Manage with Legacy Software?

by Michelle Martineau

A recent NPR Marketplace segment shines a spotlight on the tech challenges local governments face

The word “legacy” is often used to describe something handed down from one generation to the next. It could be money or property bequeathed in a will, or it could be the antiquated software passed from one local administration to the next. Needless to say, finding out you’re the heir apparent to a priceless Picasso is preferable to inheriting a green-screen computer that uses a programming language no longer taught in schools. Sadly, the latter is the cumbersome legacy that many municipal workers are left with as they try to deliver modern services to their communities.

Kai Ryssdal and Liz Sanchez of NPR’s Marketplace recently reported on the woeful state of information technology in the municipal sector. In a two-part radio interview, Ryssdal spoke first with Romy Varghese who covers technology for Bloomberg San Francisco where the local assessor’s office is still using software from the 1980s. A week later, the Marketplace team followed up with Carmen Chu elected assessor of San Francisco for her take on what it’s like to work with outdated technology.

Ryssdal confessed that he was both “surprised and horrified” to hear that many local governments — especially San Francisco with its proximity to Silicon Valley (AKA: the cradle of tech innovation) — rely on antiquated systems to assess taxes and fund vital community services. Unfortunately, having to make do with limited resources is a familiar refrain in municipal circles and a conversation we at ClearGov often have with our clients and prospects. So, while we weren’t “surprised” by the Marketplace report, a few (energy-efficient) lightbulbs did go off:

1. Willfully or not, the public is in the dark.

These Marketplace segments on NPR function like a Public Service Announcement (PSA) for municipalities. And by that I mean they serve to raise awareness and may help change public attitude. The fact is unless you work in local government, work for an industry that serves local government, or are a very engaged citizen, you probably have no idea what tools your Town Hall or school district uses to crunch numbers or allocate resources. Why would you? The streets get plowed, the trash gets picked up, the school buses run.

You probably just assume that like any small business your home town is equipped with at least the basics to get the job done. Of course, if it were your small business, you’d want the best, most efficient tools you could afford for yourself and your team. But, that’s the thing. You are after all a taxpayer, so local government actually IS your business and you should want it run in the most effective way possible, right?

That’s the message civic leaders need to pass on to their constituents. Informed residents can help municipalities actually make a case for modernizing systems. For example, if every business leader and average citizen within earshot of that Marketplace radio segment were asked if they thought the people responsible for carrying out tax law and funding public safety should have 21st century software, I’m guessing the majority would say yes. And, that right there is a compelling argument for fiscal transparency in local government, something we talk about a lot here.

Citizens need to know and understand that while many local municipalities are getting by with antiquated solutions, they’re missing revenue opportunities, wasting time, and ultimately not serving the public’s best interest. Frankly, local agencies are reaching a tipping point. Soon, the question will no longer be whether they can afford to innovate, but can they afford not to.

2. Fiscal transparency done right can shed much-needed light on how revenues are collected and distributed.

Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate.” We the people need to have a frank discussion about what it takes to run a local government efficiently in the year 2019. At the heart of that conversation is a transparent and clear accounting of revenues and expenditures. We’ve talked about it many times before, but people can’t get behind what they don’t understand.

In an effort to comply with OPEN data initiatives, many municipalities have started posting PDFs of their financials on their website. Sadly, they’re not doing their residents or themselves any favors. No one is going to scroll through 200+ pages ofspreadsheets to find the line items they care about or, for that matter, the line items towns want them to support. Furthermore, if it’s an image-only PDF (that’s the kind that treats all of those pages like one giant image), it’s not even searchable. This kind of transparency does nothing to drive public awareness or build consensus, which leads us to our third lightbulb moment.

3. Who says modernizing government isn’t sexy?

Our ears perked up when Kai Ryssdal implied that tech companies weren’t interested in solving the legacy software issue for municipalities. Hello?!! It’s actually ClearGov’s mission. In addition to creating an affordable, turnkey transparency and benchmarking platform that translates dense fiscal data into interactive infographics everyone can understand, we’ve also introduced a cloud-based budgeting and forecasting solution custom-built for local governments.

Light years beyond the green-screen computers in the San Francisco tax assessor’s office, our AI-powered platform helps local governments better forecast the impact of property tax caps on revenues or contracted salary increases on future expenditures. Our solution also empowers municipal finance administrators with valuable features folks in the private sector take for granted like trend analysis, collaboration tools, audit trails, and much more. These are the tools modern cities need to make better choices and to govern as efficiently and effectively as possible, not just today but well into the future. And, because they’re cloud-based solutions, they’ll always be up to date.

Municipalities aren’t clinging to legacy software, because they like it or because the tech world isn’t offering viable alternatives. While funding is definitely a factor, it’s more complicated than that. But, we’ve got answers.

ClearGov will be exhibiting at the annual Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) conference in Los Angeles May 19th through the 21st. If you plan to attend, please stop by Booth #218 and let’s continue the conversation. Heck, we’ll even let you take our sexy tech for a test drive.

 

Talkin’ ‘Bout “Y” Generation

by Michelle Martineau

How savvy municipalities are meeting Millennials where they are (and catching some Zs in the process)

“People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)”

Released 50+ years ago, the song “My Generation” by the British rock band the Who was an anthem to the youthful angst of a burgeoning class of Boomers who, at the time, couldn’t envision getting old, let alone retiring. Like it or not, it happens to most of us. And, as they say, “it beats the alternative.”

In fact, at this very moment, approximately 40 percent of the municipal workforce is within 5 years of retirement. That means many local governments, like businesses in the private sector, need to brace for what’s sure to be a seismic generational shift. And, the most savvy municipalities are getting a head start by meeting “Y” Generation (AKA: millennials) where they are and catching some Zs in the process.

According to the Pew Research Center, anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is considered a Millennial, and anyone born from 1997 onward is part of Generation Z (the oldest of whom turn 22 this year). While there are myriad social, political, and economic factors that distinguish Boomers and Gen Xers from their Y and Z brethren, technology has to be among the biggest differentiators.

Consider this: the “World Wide Web” only became publicly available on August 6, 1991 — a fact that positions the birth of the Internet as a decidedly Millennial event. Generation Y literally came of age alongside the Internet, spending most of their years — formative and otherwise — online. It only makes sense then, that if you want to engage Millennials you need to meet them where they live (in cyberspace). And, that’s a reality that many civic leaders across the country are starting to embrace.

At ClearGov, we talk to local officials all day every day and we sometimes hear complaints that young Americans aren’t as politically engaged or civic-minded as previous generations. We couldn’t disagree more, and a recent survey by GenForward and NBC News also begs to differ. The poll shows that Millennials are not only committed to affecting change, they’re prepared to work for it. Six in 10 think they have the skills and knowledge necessary to participate in politics. And 63 percent think that by participating, they can make a difference.

So, where’s the disconnect? The short answer is that it’s online. Looking for Millennials at a town meeting is like looking for goldfish in a sandbox: it’s not their thing. They grew up on the Internet, they expect information to be online and at their fingertips. And, frankly, they’re suspicious if it’s not.

So, where’s the disconnect? The short answer is that it’s online. Looking for Millennials at a town meeting is like looking for goldfish in a sandbox: it’s not their thing. They grew up on the Internet, they expect information to be online and at their fingertips. And, frankly, they’re suspicious if it’s not.

Meanwhile, their Gen Z siblings (and offspring!) grew up clutching an iPhone in their tiny little hands. If you really want to have a meaningful exchange with anyone born in the last three decades or so, you need to do it on the small screen (a laptop, an iPad, or a mobile device).

Millennials are accustomed to change and they want to be part of the solution. You just have to give them ways to get involved and invite them to join the conversation. Try this:

• Live-stream your town meetings on Facebook.

• Post your local budget in a readable format, one that’s not only accessible on a cell phone, but decipherable.

• Pitch capital improvements on social media and then drive young residents to online project pages where they can get more details and subscribe to receive automatic updates.

Today, forward-thinking civic leaders are tasked with governing in a dynamic and hyperconnected world that has no precedent. But, there are plenty of tools out there to help local officials navigate these uncharted waters and reach out to their younger constituents who are genuinely interested in how local government works and may actually want to play an active role.

Turnkey platforms like ClearGov, for example, make it easy for municipalities to share demographics, financials, project data, and more in an interactive online format that’s accessible and easy for everyone — from Boomers to Gens X, Y, and Z  — to understand. You can get started by claiming your free profile here.

Meanwhile, the sooner you connect with “Y” Generation the better. The Millennial Action Project, a nonpartisan group that supports young people in politics, says that more than 800 millennials ran for state legislative seats in 2018. More than a third, approximately 275, won. If you’re not actively building your online presence, you’re missing out on a tremendous pool of talent that’s eager to be engaged.  Plus, they’re the only ones who can help you fix that weird thing that keeps happening with your cell phone. :)

5 Easy Ways to Prep for Your Annual Budget Reviews Using ClearGov

by Michelle Martineau

With the ClearGov platform, you’ve got a powerful tool at your disposal to help prepare for your annual budget review, and really any meeting (either internal or public-facing) in which you’ll be discussing finances, capital projects, or short- and long-term planning. In addition to providing taxpayers with an easy-to-understand, visual overview of your finances, your ClearGov Transparency Center can be a valuable resource for public officials engaged in strategic planning. Here are five ways you can leverage ClearGov to help get everyone on the same page and build valuable consensus.

1. Publish your proposed budget to your ClearGov site

It’s a best practice to ensure that your Fiscal Transparency Center always displays the most current data available. In fact, prior to your budget review meetings, it’s a good idea to publish your proposed budget to your ClearGov site, that way key stakeholders and even residents can follow the process as it progresses. Keep in mind, you control access to your numbers so you decide who sees what when. You can share the proposed budget internally as you prep and then open it up to the public once you’re ready to present. Just be sure to add commentary clearly indicating that the numbers shown are proposed and not yet approved. Your ClearGov client success manager can help you get your most up-to-date information uploaded to the site in a timely manner — just give us 48 hours notice and we’ll make it happen.

2. Quickly generate charts for presentations

Why recreate the wheel in Excel when you can generate compelling charts and graphs right from the ClearGov platform with a simple click? With ClearGov Insights, you have the flexibility to easily export powerful visuals to include in your presentation decks. And, if you’re using ClearGov Budgets, you have access to historical trends, forecasted projections, and additional dynamic charts to help inform both short- and long-term budget impacts. That’s important intelligence you can then share with key stakeholders, so everyone can make better informed budgetary decisions.

3. Provide context through commentary

Numbers only tell part of the story, but just a few lines of supporting text can add valuable missing context — like explain a shortfall or call attention to savings. For example, if revenue looks lower over time because the past three years included non-recurring revenue to fund a project, you can easily annotate that. Or, say you need an investment in technology upgrades, you can use commentary to justify increased expenditures in that particular category. Think of it this way: ClearGov infographics provides the what and when, and your commentary provides the why and how.

4. Use the Projects App to explain capital improvement plans and progress

If you haven’t used ClearGov’s new Projects app yet (it’s free with your Insights subscription), now’s a good time to get your feet wet — especially if you’re looking to fund capital outlays. The easy-to-use application allows you to quickly create and publish detailed project pages to your ClearGov site. These template-driven pages take only minutes to populate and post, and enable you to share proposed timelines, planning documents, budgets, and more in one centralized location. It’s a great way to educate the public and build consensus around proposed capital initiatives like new construction, renovations, and more. And, perhaps best of all, you don’t need to be a webmaster to create a project page. The process is easy and intuitive and you can empower any member of your team to post. Finally, once the page is live, visitors can subscribe to receive automated updates. You can also opt to invite visitors to ask questions or post comments in a moderated forum you control. Want help getting started? Your ClearGov client success manager is happy to show you the ropes.

5. Drive traffic to your Fiscal Transparency Center

You probably already have a link to your Transparency Center on your website (if you don’t, please reach out to your client success manager), but there are other ways you can get the word out to constituents about this valuable resource. Use every available channel, including email communications, newsletters, and social media. In fact, consider pinning a post with a link to your Transparency Center at the top of your Facebook and Twitter pages, especially as it gets closer to the date of your annual budget review. At budget presentation, be sure to include one or more slides that references the Transparency Center URL. It should also appear on any printed materials. The more people (residents, business owners, local press) you can drive to your site, the fewer inquiries you’ll have to field down the road. Plus, the whole idea behind transparency is to better engage and inform your electorate, so try to promote your ClearGov page every  opportunity you get.

We hope you find these tips helpful as you prepare for and navigate your next budget meeting. As always, please reach out if you have questions or concerns. We’re here to help!

Why District Officials Need to Up Their Budget Game Now for 2020 — and Beyond

by Michelle Martineau

A new Education Week article shines a spotlight on the battle over state budget surpluses

If January and February are any indication, 2019 promises to be another volatile year for school districts as teachers nationwide hit the streets to demand raises and other benefits. Last month, tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers kicked things off, marching downtown and picketing for six school days before reaching a deal with officials. Two weeks ago, Denver public school teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years. And, this week, teachers in Oakland, CA headed back to the picket line demanding  smaller classes and better pay.

This all occurs on the heels of the grassroots “Red for Ed” movement that began in Arizona and quickly gained traction last year, and it shows no sign of slowing anytime soon. Now, new analysis conducted by Education Week points to budget surpluses in more than half the states across the country. But the question is, will states opt to dole out big dollars for education or err on the side of caution and tuck money away for a rainy day?

If you’re a district leader, now’s a good time to bring your A-game to the budget negotiations table. 

If you’re a district leader, now’s a good time to bring your A-game to the budget negotiations table. The clearer you can make your case to committee, council, executive board, teachers, parent groups, and the public at large the better position you’ll be in to procure the funding you need to improve outcomes.

One way to do that is to invest in tools that tell your budget story in the clearest possible way for both internal and external stakeholders. For example, rather than cobbling together spreadsheets and printouts to justify your requests, consider a more visual strategy that lays out all your data (not just the line items, but the trends, demographics, and enrollment numbers that back up your requests) in a way that’s easy for everyone to understand.

ClearGov Budgets includes access to historical trends, forecasted projections, and simple charts to help inform both short- and long-term budget impacts. You can even create multiple budgets to easily and quickly compare various what-if scenarios. Additionally, ClearGov dynamically generates easy-to-understand graphics as you go, so you can identify at a glance areas that are consistently under or over budget. This is precisely the kind of visualization that can help you effectively gauge the impact of today’s adjustments on tomorrow’s revenues and expenditures — and make smarter, evidence-based decisions for your district.

With tools like ClearGov, you also have the ability to compare your district’s data to others with similar enrollments or that serve similar student populations. Traditionally, benchmarking analyses like these can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming to conduct, but ClearGov automates the process making it easy for you to identify relevant peer groups so you can quickly see how your district stacks up on any given line item. That’s valuable intelligence you can use to build your case for increasing or decreasing your spend in key areas.

Once your budget is final, you can even publish it to your ClearGov transparency site with the click of a button. And, there are numerous reasons to make your district’s fiscal data accessible to the public. Among the chief reasons to consider posting budget actuals to your public-facing profile is to build community consensus. An informed electorate can be your biggest asset, generating the support you need to nudge state officials to act on your behalf. According to a recent poll released by Loyola Marymount University, the overwhelming majority of Los Angeles residents — nearly 90 percent — supported the recent teachers strike. It’s always better when the public’s got your back.

Understandably, budgeting for new business tools often takes a back seat to curriculum, instruction, and building upgrades. But in this case, your ability to budget accurately and forecast with precision is an essential means to a critical end. And, a very modest investment in smart, cloud-based solutions may just help you build a more compelling argument to persuade local legislators to fund the initiatives that matter most to your community. These tools also serve to get school executives working off the same page and more efficiently so you can spend more time on budget strategy and less time scrambling to pull the numbers together. In the end, it’s all about funding better outcomes and the best way to ensure that is to make sure everyone understands exactly what’s on the table.

It’s Official: The OPEN Government Data Act is Now the Law of the Land

by Michelle Martineau

The OPEN Data Act passed the US House and Senate with rare bipartisan support

What does it mean for local agencies and the public at large?

On January 14, 2019, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking (FEBP) Act into law. A key component of FEBP is the OPEN Government Data Act, which passed the US House and Senate back in December with rare bipartisan support.

This new legislation has been years in the making and codifies key pieces of President Obama’s 2013 Open Data Policy Memorandum. In addition to the broader initiative to improve government transparency and drive citizen engagement, the OPEN Government Data Act also promises to increase the accessibility and usability of government information for other key stakeholders including journalists, academics, and entrepreneurs in both the public and private sector.

OPEN is actually an acronym that stands for Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary, and under the new law federal agencies are now required to publish all non-sensitive government information online in a machine-readable format. That’s good news for everyone, especially researchers and developers looking for data to fuel innovation.

For the record, the “non-sensitive government data” we’re talking about generally includes information on weather, traffic, census, budgets, and more. More importantly, it’s data that taxpayers actually paid to develop and fund. In short, the public financed this information, and now the law says they’ll finally have free and easy access to it.

Making government data not only accessible, but machine readable is key because it means it’s searchable and therefore more actionable.  A 2017 letter of support for the legislation signed by more than 80 businesses, industry groups, civic organizations, and transparency advocates argued that opening up data to people in both the public and private sectors would effectively drive development of “new tools and services that address some of the country’s most pressing economic and social challenges.”

Until now, many government agencies simply scanned documents and posted PDFs to their website to comply with Federal Open Information Act (FOIA) requirements. While this checked the transparency box, it didn’t make the data easily searchable or particularly useful. With this new legislation, that’s about to change — for good.

While the new guidelines specifically apply to federal agencies, the implications are far-reaching. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that open and transparent government is no longer merely aspirational. For democracies here and abroad, government data is increasingly open by default. And, there’s ample evidence to show that this global sentiment is being embraced at the local level as more cities and towns endeavor to establish and hone an online presence to better engage busy constituents.

In fact, over the last three years ClearGov has built free public-facing pages for 20,000+ local governments showcasing government data in easy-to-understand infographic-style profiles. And, hundreds of towns and school districts in 20 different states have since claimed their profiles, expanding them to include valuable commentary and relevant peer comparisons. Some are even building out project pages that enable residents to view budgets, blueprints, timelines and more for capital improvements, new construction, and other initiatives. Residents can even subscribe to receive updates automatically every time the data changes.

While OPEN data is now officially the law of the land, it’s not likely the transparency police will be enforcing it any time soon. However, it does set the bar for clear governance — and there’s no going back. It’s time to start sharing public-owned data with the public, and making it easy to understand and actionable.

Three Steps to Set the Stage for Better Transparency

by Michelle Martineau

An interview with Terry Mutchler, transparency hall of famer

NOTE: In November of 2018, the digital news publication Route Fifty published an edited version of the following commentary by ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock. With the federal OPEN Government Data Act officially signed into law just last week, this seems like the perfect time to revisit Chris’ timely interview with Terry Mutchler, transparency advocate and former executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.

The demand for transparency in government is as old as our democracy. In fact, the founding fathers spelled it out in the Declaration of Independence:

“He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.”

If you skip past the section of the declaration that you had to memorize as a kid, you’ll find a less-quoted list of grievances against King George III. That’s where Thomas Jefferson calls out colonial governors for clandestinely moving the meeting sites of assemblies and limiting access to public records.

Fast forward 242 years and transparency advocates like Terry Mutchler continue to fight the powers that be in the revolutionary pursuit of public access. And — given the current climate of distrust in our democracy and the proliferation of “fake news” — the need for an informed and educated citizenry has arguably never been greater.

Fatiguing them into compliance

Mutchler, the former executive director of Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records (OOR), has made transparency her life’s mission. And, in a recent interview, the newly minted hall of famer summarized the drive toward open government this way, “If ‘fatiguing them into compliance’ doesn’t describe today’s environment, nothing does.”

She was recently inducted into the National Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition’s State Open Government Hall of Fame. It’s a long and cumbersome title for the annually bestowed national honor, but it’s fitting when you consider that there’s nothing concise or easy about getting government agencies to show you their checkbooks.

No one knows that better than Mutchler who ten years ago single-handedly built Pennsylvania’s independent office of open records from the ground up. Before she even had a budget or a building, she set up a makeshift office in the back of a dismantled library and, with a copy of the state’s new open records law in hand, began interviewing stakeholders and writing the policies and procedures that paved the way for the level of transparency the state currently enjoys.

Mutchler is a former AP award-winning journalist and a current practicing partner at Mutchler Lyons, the nation’s first firm focused exclusively on transparency law. She’s also something of a self-proclaimed openness geek as evidenced by her ability to quote lesser-known passages from the Declaration of Independence at the drop of a hat.

We asked for her expert take on the Sisyphean task of nudging local officials into compliance. Here’s what she had to say about where municipalities stand today and where they should focus their energies for the long-term.

Reframing the argument: Imagine you’re a credit counselor

Sure, transparency is the bedrock of democracy, but to frame the idea in a way that makes modern sense, Mutchler likens the role of municipal official to that of a credit counselor. She explains, “the first thing a credit counselor tells their client is that you can’t budget or make sound financial decisions for your family unless you actually know where you stand.”

As keepers and executors of the public purse, it behooves local leaders to get their constituents to understand what resources they actually have and how those resources are distributed. Until you get everything out on the table, you can’t effectively plan ahead. Yet, there’s often resistance on the part of municipalities to pony up the receipts when asked.

As a practicing attorney, Mutchler attests to the fact that few laws are as emotionally fraught as right-to-know laws. That’s because people on both sides go in with their guard up. The town clerk thinks the constituent is there to check up on him or her. And the constituent thinks the clerk is trying to hide something. So, the relationship tends to be adversarial from the get-go, but it doesn’t have to be.

Teaching officials to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens, not toe-to-toe

When Mutchler first started at the OOR, she and her modest staff of three managed to conduct some 1500 presentations across the state. She says that every time they went into a town to train municipal officials the amount of record requests actually declined.

Mutchler suggests there are three steps clerks can take now to reduce friction and set the stage for better transparency:

1. Strip emotion from the equation: While a record request may feel personal, it’s not. The requestor wants to see the township’s checkbook, not yours. When you remove emotion and err on the side of openness, you immediately reduce the friction. She advises clerks to adopt a presumption of openness, meaning that they should presume the record is open and then check to see if there’s a legitimate reason to withhold it.

2. Formalize the request process: One way to strip the emotion from the task is to make it routine. Create a structure and put forms in place so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you get a request.

3. Put it online: Once you’ve built a form and a process, put everything on your website — including your records. The more information you can make accessible, the less you’ll have to manually track down. Plus, you’ll have fewer requests to field if you empower citizens to effectively serve themselves.

All of this may sound overwhelming to public officials who are already overworked and underpaid, but there are actually new ways for municipalities to be more transparent with their records without incurring additional work.

Mutchler says there are companies out there now who can help local governments do the heavy lifting. Turnkey platforms like ClearGov, for example, make it easy to share financials with constituents in a way that’s not only easy-to-understand but also helps to drive public trust, understanding, and engagement. According to Mutchler, “trying to be transparent without taking advantage of new technology is like clearing the roads by hand with a shovel instead of using a plow.”

Positioning Pennsylvania for the long-term

Today, with the open records leg of the stool firmly in place, Mutchler says Pennsylvania officials will need to attach two more legs to build government transparency that’s stable and sustainable for the long-term. She explains that to continue on this trajectory, they’ll next need to revisit laws around record retention and open meetings.

Mutchler says the existing record retention law that’s on the books in Pennsylvania hasn’t been updated since 1929, “not since blackberries were still on a bush,” she quips.

Today, municipalities struggle to manage not only physical documents but voluminous electronic records as well. There’s just way too much data to tackle transparency without factoring technology into the equation. Furthermore, someone has to decide how long governments should be required to store all those records. These are just a few of the myriad issues that still need to be researched and resolved.

As far as open meetings go, the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act currently requires agencies to “deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting.” They also have to notify the public in advance so people “can attend, participate, and comment.” The founding fathers would be proud. Right now, the OOR does not enforce the Sunshine Act, but it does provide training on the law.

Mutchler declares it may take 10–15 years to get all three of these pieces to fall into place, but when they do, Pennsylvania will lead the country in transparency and serve as a model for open government everywhere. Spoken like a true hall of famer.

 

Join the conversation: Register to attend a live Q&A with Gov. Martin O’Malley January 23rd

by Michelle Martineau

Former two-term governor and pioneer of data-driven governing, Martin O’Malley

It’s not every day that you get to pick the brain of a former governor and pioneer of data-driven reporting and management systems for local governments, but next Wednesday you’ll get your chance.

Mark your calendar and reserve your virtual seat at the table now for “The New Realities of Public Leadership – A Live Q&A with Martin O’Malley.” On Wednesday, January 23rd at 3:00 PM (EST), ClearGov CEO Chris Bullock will sit down with the former two-term mayor of Baltimore and two-term Governor of Maryland to talk best practices for civic leaders in the age of misinformation.

Given today’s politically charged climate, it’s worth noting that the conversation will draw upon O’Malley’s vast experience in running governments by the numbers and not his party affiliation, as ClearGov’s mission to help democracies work better is strictly nonpartisan.

O’Malley’s experience in the public sector spans three decades and includes eight years serving as a city councilor, so he’s well versed in the challenges confronted by civic leaders at the city, state, and local level. He’s also an avid proponent of transparent, data-driven governing and a founding practitioner of CitiStat, an innovative statistics-based tracking system that he debuted in Baltimore and later evolved for statewide use as Governor. The cutting-edge program won Harvard University’s Innovations in American Government Award in 2004 and is now used by hundreds of governments across the country and globally.

O’Malley currently sits on the board of directors for ClearGov and shares the company’s passion for empowering public leaders to better communicate, connect, and engage with their constituents. Of course, with more ways than ever for the public to access, consume, and disseminate information, today’s leaders face a whole new set of challenges.

In the last decade or so, there’s been a profound shift in the way we as a society get and share news. The internet, social media, and smartphones have all played a role in the democratization of data. Today, more people than ever not only enjoy — but have come to expect — unfettered access to a near-infinite stream of information (accurate and otherwise).

While this new reality poses unique challenges for civic and school leaders, the opportunities far outweigh the risks. The most successful leaders will be those who learn to leverage Information Age technologies to inform better decision-making, drive transparency, and ultimately build public trust.

In an ebook published earlier this month, Governor O’Malley identified best practices for how to not only adapt in an increasingly hyperconnected world, but actually thrive and help your community to prosper in ways never before possible.

In a live Q&A with the Governor on Wednesday January 23rd, we’ll pick up where the ebook leaves off. Register now to secure your space at this live event. Even if you can’t attend, sign up now and we’ll send you a recording of what promises to be an insightful discussion about the challenges of public leadership in the era of “fake news.”