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Palo Alto’s “Open Budget”: What Transparency Looks Like – Part II

Pete Peterson
Candidate (R) for California Secretary of State, and Executive Director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement at Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy

When we last left our intrepid transparency trailblazers at the City of Palo Alto (PA), they had just launched one of the nation’s most comprehensive open data platforms.  Using Census and municipal data, Open Data Palo Alto provided residents (or anyone for that matter) with information ranging from the percentage of Palo Altans under five years old to a list of the most recent building permits issued by the Planning Department.

As I noted in my earlier piece, what made PA’s Open Data Platform so interesting is not just what it told you, but what it provided you – specifically, the ability to download the original datasets themselves for the public examination and development. Tech-savvy citizens in a growing number of cities have utilized this public data to build a number of handheld applications on services ranging from transportation to utilities – all at no cost to the city itself. This is the transition from “1.0” (outbound/informing) relationship between government and citizen to a “2.0” (dialogic/participatory) platform.

This week, Palo Alto takes this effort a great leap further with the unveiling of their Open Budget Platform. Utilizing Mountain View-based Delphi Solution’s “Transparency” software (full disclosure: I am an advisor to Delphi), Open Budget puts a several hundred-page municipal budget document into an intuitive, easy-to-use framework that both educates and empowers residents and city officials.

A quick glance of the General Fund on the site’s first page assures the viewer that what was once so opaque may actually become understandable. But a click on the “Filter” tab in the upper left of the screen and the platform really takes off. Want to see the city’s pattern of capital expenditures since 2009? Just click on the appropriate boxes, and bam! Want to check the revenues coming in to the library system over the last three years? Boom. Look at the General Fund spending on “administrative services” compared to “supplies and materials”? Bang.

But along with the data comes context and education. Click on “About City Finances” in the upper right and the participant is taken through a simple (though informative) overview of the city budget process. Spend 10 minutes here and most will learn more about their own city budget than they ever knew. This is a civic education platform as much as a data program.

So who will be the next city (or dare I say, state?) to be this open with their budget data?

As much as the technology in Open Budget is jaw-dropping, what becomes obvious in speaking with Palo Alto’s city officials who are behind the launch is that transparency is more a leadership issue than a technological one.  In Palo Alto’s case, it’s taken the stewardship of Jim Keene (city manager), Jonathan Reichental (CIO), and Lalo Perez (CFO) to put the City Budget into a format citizens can understand. This is not easy.

In the HBO series, “Veep”, about the life of a vice president (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus), when she’s asked for classified documents through a FOIA request, her response is to “send them the boxes”. In other words, overwhelm the petitioner with information – always in printed form – as a way of making research as difficult as possible.

This “culture of complexity” can be an intentional defense mechanism used by many bureaucracies – both public and private sector – when transparency is demanded of them. It can be seen in most of our public sector budget reporting, which often takes the format of reams of printed Excel spreadsheets. Importantly, this density can also make it difficult for municipal leaders to make well-informed decisions.

To be fair, for decades there were not a lot of options for city officials who wanted to be more open about public data – particularly on budgets. But what we’re witnessing in Palo Alto is the coming together of technology and a leadership that wants to develop a new relationship with its residents. As Jim Keene notes in the launch of Open Budget, this “translates to a deeper level of interaction with our community.”

Now the question begs: will residents (in PA and elsewhere) take up the invitation?

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