As a City, we’re all for financial transparency.
The challenge is getting data out of our systems in a way that actually has some meaning to people.
The fact is most of the City’s financial systems were designed to meet State auditing requirements which have very specific reporting formats to ensure the highest protection of public funds.
That’s great but it makes for terrible reading material.
It seems like if we’re serious about transparency it means more than just sharing the data that’s in our systems — it should be sharing the data in a way that allows people to make sense of it, and that’s the tricky part.
Frankly it takes an accounting degree to interpret a lot of the data.
Don’t get me wrong, the City’s Audit and Comprehensive Annual Financial Report are exceptional documents for people that speak that language but it’s sort of like Latin — it’s the basis of everything we do but nobody speaks it anymore.
At least with Latin, you realize you don’t understand it while you’re reading it but the City’s financial reports have come a long way and they’re quite user “friendly” — which makes them sneaky because you feel like you know what you’re reading but maybe you actually don’t, but you don’t really know you don’t unless you’re an accountant that deals with the nuances of accrual versus cash basis reporting.
Historically, the City Budget has been the primary means of providing some financial transparency and it’s definitely a couple of steps closer to being “readable” but it still is rooted in that old financial world so it has its limits too.
The Budget Message is the executive summary where we do our best to cypher out the trends and outcomes that are written between the lines of all those budget numbers. We do that because we think that’s what people really care about — what do the numbers mean in terms of how soon my street gets paved, sidewalk repaired, or recycling collected.
We’ve gone ahead and added another layer of explanation on top of the Budget Message by preparing our Budget Brief. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version of the 200 page budget document with the kinds of color charts, graphs, and visual representations that made USA Today so popular.
It’s hard to distill everything financial about a City into a 4 page, front and back fold out, but we thought it was worth the effort. It’s also just as hard to share that document electronically because of all the folds but I went ahead and separated the individual panels to make it a little easier to follow.
It’s one of the few times that the old fashioned paper version still works best. We have plenty of hard copies and if you’d like one, just ask.