Over the last decade there has been a push towards greater transparency and accountability within local governments. The push comes from many directions: the state, trends seen in other governments, and a growing interest and expectation from citizens, community groups and media outlets. In addition, studies show trust and confidence in state and local government remains at near historic lows. In this regard, how can governments improve the public’s perception of their performance?
The importance of transparency
According to the Government Finance Officers Association (“GFOA”), governments seeking to increase their budget transparency can implement practices such as creating websites to share financial reports and datasets. GFOA recommends governments implement public engagement practices to not only become more accountable and responsive to their communities but improve the public’s perception of their performance.
Using budget transparency to encourage greater participation and engagement with citizens can also lead to:
- Improvements in public services by giving citizens access to data about those services
- Better budgeting and prioritization for public budget expenditures through stakeholder input
- More informed policy and increased administrative efficiencies within departments
- New opportunities for governments to collaborate with citizens and businesses
Open data and transparency
Open data portals have been established by governments across North America to make it easier for citizens to obtain information about government activity. The portals share datasets of information about everything from the number of library patrons each year to median sales prices for homes. Why should governments share their financial and other data? To improve the level of trust stakeholders, have in a government’s data practices, an important part of that trust is data transparency. People are more likely to have greater trust in an organization when they also have a better understanding of that organization’s data practices.
However, sharing datasets and financial information with citizens on a website will not necessarily promote interest or engagement. The main reason is that many of these datasets are complex. While the latest Governing.com 2019 Profiles in High Performance Government: Cities on the Move report shows nearly 88% of the cities who participated in their study are using open data initiatives, in their 2017 report only 33% of survey participants believed their government data was consumable by the public.
Citizens visiting open data portals are most likely looking for something specific that tells them a story about how the government is run. However, if there are 10,000 datasets from tabular numbers, that complex data is a barrier an average citizen is not likely to get past. If citizens cannot understand the financial data you are sharing, their perception of government performance is unlikely to be favorable.
How to make complex data more user friendly
The three key methods of making financial data easier for citizens to understand are to make it searchable, visual and sharable. To achieve this, governments should consider providing interactive visualizations that allow citizens to explore data through searchable graphs, charts, maps and informational pop-ups. New transparency and data visualization tools that can translate financial data into engaging visuals can be posted online to websites and shared through social channels for easy public access.
Data visualization offers a sophisticated method of representing data in a visual format. Studies have shown that humans respond better to visuals, processing visual information 60,000 times faster than text. Citizens can gain a deeper understanding of the government’s financial story when they can search, filter and drill-down through the data of greatest interest to them. Quite simply, data visualization makes data easier for governments to communicate and citizens to consume.
Use data visualization to tell your government’s financial story
To engage with citizens and increase budget transparency, governments who implement public engagement practices and use data visualization can tell their financial story to create a better understanding about how tax dollars are spent, where funding comes from, and what programs and services the government provides to their communities. Transparency and data visualization tools can showcase data practices and display in an easy to understand format how the government is managed and how it works collaboratively to plan for its citizens and businesses today and for the future.
To learn more about how budget transparency can increase financial transparency for governments, register for Questica’s transparency webinar or download our free transparency white paper, Taking government budget transparency and engagement to the next level.
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