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

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.

 

Innovative Platform Modernizes the Budget Process for Local Governments and School Districts

by Chris Bullock

modern government budgetingClearGov launches new budgeting and forecasting solution to compliment transparency platform.

Maynard, MA (9/20/18) – ClearGov, a leader in municipal technology, announced today a new product that streamlines the budget-building process for local governments and school districts and allows them to more accurately and easily forecast expenses and funding. Designed in collaboration with existing ClearGov customers, the sophisticated, yet simple platform was built in response to the ever-evolving demands of the public sector to enhance antiquated systems and drive efficiencies.

ClearGov BudgetsTM allows municipal officials to quickly and easily create, share and review their budget via a web-based portal. Innovative collaboration tools give administrators the ability to easily communicate with department heads on budget requests; accept or deny requests; and manage and track feedback. The platform gives internal stakeholders more visibility into the entire budgeting process; saves time and effort; and mitigates the human error that can happen when trying to collaborate across multiple spreadsheets.

Additionally, ClearGov BudgetsTM includes a sophisticated forecasting tool that allows local municipalities to gain a clearer picture of future expenses and funding in order to make more informed budgetary decisions. The forecasting tool goes beyond traditional regression-based forecast analyses by utilizing a type of neural network used in deep learning systems, to automatically generate accurate forecasts based on current and historical internal budget models.

ClearGov BudgetsTM also features a digital audit trail that is automatically created and updated whenever changes are made to the budget; the ability to create and export reports for print or digital budget books; and a document repository that enables users to easily access any supporting documentation for individual budgetary line items.

“Our clients have consistently expressed how much time and frustration can be involved in their budgeting process,” said Chris Bullock, CEO at ClearGov. “We worked closely with our clients to develop a solution that is simple and easy to use, yet flexible enough to fit their process and powerful enough to meet and exceed the needs of all sizes of municipalities.”

ClearGov is a leader in government transparency and benchmarking solutions and works with hundreds of local governments and school districts in 20 states across the country. The Massachusetts based startup recently raised a round of seed capital and has consistently grown their customer base 350% year-over-year. The addition of BudgetsTM to ClearGov’s suite of innovative municipal solutions is the next step in ClearGov’s mission to build a community of transparent, data-driven, modern governments.

“As a client-focused company, it is our responsibility to listen and take action when we uncover a real need,” said Sarah Webber, VP of Client Success at ClearGov. “Feedback from the BudgetsTM pilot group has been very positive and I couldn’t be more proud that ClearGov has found another way to truly help democracy work better.”

To explore ClearGov’s local government budgeting dashboard visit www.cleargov.com.

 

About ClearGov

ClearGov is building a community of transparent, data-driven, modern governments. ClearGov drives this mission by offering a suite of SaaS solutions for town, cities, schools and other municipal entities that includes transparency, benchmarking, budgeting and forecasting solutions. ClearGov’s award-winning platform is utilized by hundreds of communities across twenty different states.

PRESS CONTACT:

Jena Skivington

585.507.5733

jskivington@cleargov.com

ClearGov Launches Artificial Intelligence Platform to Compare Local Government Finances

by Chris Bullock

Machine Learning Automatically Standardizes Municipal Accounting to Enable Peer-to-Peer Benchmarking

Maynard, MA (5/8/18) – ClearGov, a leading municipal transparency and benchmarking platform, today announced an artificial intelligence platform to more accurately and automatically compare finances across municipalities.  The new technology helps local governments benchmark spending and funding across a state and national standardized chart of accounts developed by ClearGov.

“Municipalities and school districts will often look to compare finances against similar agencies as a way to identify opportunities to be more efficient with taxpayer dollars. Yet the task of benchmarking municipal finances is made difficult by the lack of a standardized accounting structure across municipalities,” said Chris Bullock, CEO of ClearGov.  “For example, one town may categorize an expenditure such as ‘Maintenance of Town Hall’ as a function of Public Works, whereas another town may categorize the same spending under Parks & Recreation.  Without a standardized accounting structure, comparing municipal finances is a challenging, if not futile exercise.”

In response to this problem, ClearGov has developed an artificial intelligence platform that can ingest government agencies’ raw accounting data and automatically translate it into a standardized chart of accounts.  The platform analyzes many elements of the accounting data, including accounting ID structures and line-item keywords, to accurately restructure the data.  By automatically placing similar accounting line items in like categories, the system produces truer “apples to apples” financial comparisons across municipalities.

Government clients of ClearGov’s Insights platform can utilize this standardized accounting structure in a series of custom benchmarking and analytical tools. For example, the platform can inform a town how its spending on “Snow & Ice Removal” compares to other towns with similar road miles in a given proximity.  The peer-to-peer comparisons are also utilized in a public-facing transparency profile to provide context that help bring a town’s financials to life for everyone in the community.

“We believe benchmarking our budget against other towns is important because it allows us to better understand and communicate our own spending in context, but this has been near impossible since every town categorizes their spending differently,” said John Frye, Financial Services Director of the Village of Pinehurst, NC.  “ClearGov’s standardized municipal financial database and budget comparison tools have afforded us a viable means to benchmark our finances against relevant communities”

ClearGov’s new artificial intelligence platform also dramatically reduces the time needed to onboard new clients’ data on to its transparency and benchmarking platform.  A process that was measured in days now takes minutes to analyze and categorize new clients’ data allowing clients to get up and running quickly.

To explore ClearGov’s local government transparency and benchmarking platform visit http://www.cleargov.com.

About ClearGov

ClearGov transforms city and town financial statements into accessible, easy-to-understand infographics to help citizens better understand how their tax dollars are being put to use.  Local governments use ClearGov’s SaaS solutions to reduce operational inefficiencies, make informed budgetary decisions and improve communication with citizens.

 

PRESS CONTACT:

Jena Skivington

585.507.5733

jskivington@cleargov.com

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ClearGov Recognized Among New England’s Top Innovators

by Chris Bullock

We are excited to announce that ClearGov has been nominated for the 2018 New England Innovation Awards.  Established in 1986 by the New England Business Association, the Innovation Awards recognize those companies that have transformed their innovative ideas into a product or service that delivers proven value to customers.  The Program has recognized almost 200 companies from a wide variety of companies in fields such as technology, manufacturing, service, non-profit, and retail/distribution.

“ClearGov prides itself on providing innovative solutions that help local government agencies better leverage data to become more effective and efficient,” said Chris Bullock, CEO of ClearGov.  “So, we are especially honored to be chosen for consideration for this prestigious award.”

The New England Business Association has selected 200 local companies for consideration and will be announcing 20 finalists on mid-April.  The 20 Finalists will each have 3 minutes to present to the entire group of judges, our Partners, our Board members, and other invited guests.  The Gala Awards Presentation and Dinner will be held in early May where the winners will be announced at a formal dinner presentation.

 

ClearGov Introduces State and Local Government Rankings

by Chris Bullock

Easy to understand rankings provide context on demographic, tax, spending, and educational performance categories

State Government RankingsHopkinton, MA (10/2/17) – ClearGov, a leading municipal transparency and benchmarking platform, has expanded its platform to include financial performance rankings of over 36,000 municipalities.  The company has also introduced state government fiscal analyses, which benchmarks state budgets.

The newly introduced rankings are built upon the breadth and scope of the ClearGov Insights™ national database, the world’s most comprehensive collection of government finances.  

ClearGov now offers per capita rankings for hundreds of categories including taxes, total revenue and spending on education public safety and employee benefits among other categories. The rankings, which can be filtered by county and population, also provide insight into demographic categories such as population growth, median home value and household income. In select states,  ClearGov also offers testing performance, per pupil spending and teacher salary rankings on local school districts.

ClearGov’s new state budget analyses not only provide taxpayers with a straightforward view of where states derive funding and spend tax dollars, but also benchmarks every budget category against contiguous states.  

“Our goal has always been to transform complex data into actionable intelligence,” said Chris Bullock, CEO and Founder of ClearGov. “It is our hope that our new state and local government rankings and analyses provide yet another opportunity for research and sharing of best practices across governments.”

Over the past two years ClearGov has gathered financial detail on nearly every city, town and village across the United States to create the world’s most comprehensive municipal financial database. The ClearGov Insights™ database now includes over $2.5 trillion in government spending across hundreds of budget categories.  Hundreds of towns, cities, villages and school districts leverage the ClearGov Insights™ platform to operate more effectively and efficiently.

About ClearGov

ClearGov transforms civic and school district financial statements into accessible, easy-to-understand infographics to help citizens better understand how their tax dollars are being put to use.  Local governments use ClearGov’s SaaS solutions to reduce operational inefficiencies, make informed budgetary decisions and improve communication with citizens.

ClearGov Launches Branded Transparency Portals

by Chris Bullock

ClearGov announced today a new feature that allows clients to easily create a branded transparency portal.   Local governments now have the option to add a community photo and seal at the top, all while still utilizing ClearGov’s infographic dashboards for financial and demographic analyses.  The custom-branded portal is made available via a private sub-domain of the ClearGov site.

The Village of Pinehurst, NC, is the first ClearGov customer to take advantage of the new branded transparency portal feature.   Check it out via the link below!

View Pinehurst, NC transparency portal here

ClearGov Ranks 7 on ELGL’s Top 50 Companies Working With Local Governments

by Chris Bullock

ClearGov topped the list at number 7 for the Haverford Choice awards from ELGL’s top 50 companies working with local governments.

The ClearGov Insights™ platform allows local governments to easily communicate their budgets to residents, and compare that information against similar peer communities.

“We are really excited to be in the top 10, alongside some really impressive organizations for the Haverford Choice awards,” says Chris Bullock, founder and CEO of ClearGov. “We love what ELGL has been doing to connect and educate the industry, and feel honored to be a recipient of this award.”

ELGL mentions their criteria for the award on their site: “The ELGL Evaluation Team used three criteria in selecting and ranking the top 50 companies: number of nominations received by each company (50%), comments submitted on each company (25%), and input from ELGL Evaluation Team (25%).”

Check out your local government’s transparency page here: www.cleargov.com.

ClearGov Announces World’s Most Comprehensive Municipal Finance Database

by Chris Bullock

local-government-financial-networkFinancial Transparency Network Now Spans Over 36,000 Municipalities Across All Fifty States

Hopkinton, MA (5/17/17) – ClearGov, a leading municipal transparency and benchmarking platform, has announced today that its network of municipal transparency profiles now covers all fifty states.  Over the past two years ClearGov has gathered financial detail on over 36,000 municipalities to create the world’s most comprehensive municipal financial database.  The ClearGov Insights™ database now includes over $2.4 trillion in government spending across hundreds of budget categories.

“Governments across the country have made tremendous efforts to make data more open and transparent,” claims Bryan Burdick, President and Co-Founder of ClearGov.  “ClearGov is now taking this open data the next mile by making it accessible to the masses and delivering actionable insights to local government leaders.”

The ClearGov team has painstakingly gathered data sets from hundreds of open data portals and FOIA requests and combined them via a unique national chart of accounts.  Through ClearGov’s benchmarking algorithm, visitors can easily compare cities and towns against similar communities and gather powerful insights into local spending.

Nearly one hundred communities across six states are already leveraging the ClearGov Insights™ Platform to provide enhanced transparency and financial accessibility to residents and internal stakeholders.  One such community, the Village of Rye Brook, NY, has found tremendous value through ClearGov’s platform.  “Our residents have a strong desire for transparency and our old way of doing things – flat budgets in PDFs and spreadsheets – just did not meet their needs,” claims Chris Bradbury, Rye Brook Village Administrator. “After a quick and easy implementation, we were able to present our budget numbers in a way that everyone can follow and appreciate, which really enhanced the value of our presentation to the public.”

Government leaders are also mining the ClearGov Insights™ database to make more informed and data-driven budgetary and policy decisions via intuitive benchmarking tools.  

“The breadth and scope of the ClearGov Insights™ national database opens up new opportunities for research and sharing of best practices across governments,” said Chris Bullock, CEO and Founder of ClearGov.  “We truly feel that this is a watershed moment not only for ClearGov, but also for the open data industry.”

To explore ClearGov’s local government network visit http://www.cleargov.com.

 

About ClearGov

ClearGov transforms city and town financial statements into accessible, easy-to-understand infographics to help citizens better understand how their tax dollars are being put to use.  Local governments use ClearGov’s SaaS solutions to reduce operational inefficiencies, make informed budgetary decisions and improve communication with citizens.

 

PRESS CONTACT:

 

Jena Skivington

585.507.5733

jskivington@cleargov.com