Bureaucracies have always been slow to adopt new technology — and they tend to fumble when they do — but the private sector is stepping in to bring the public sector up to speed in the Internet era.
Leading the charge is a company called OpenGov.
The company claims it can save government time and money while leaving citizens and public employees better-informed —but how? And how does the average citizen fit in?
OpenGov's basic functionality is simple: the company takes city budget data, organizes it into usable, readable formats (as opposed to the 40,000-row spreadsheets that currently tend to clog city council agenda packets) and posts the data online where public servants and citizens alike can take a gander.
The City of Los Angeles budget information, as presented on OpenGov. (Image via OpenGov)
More than 100 governments in 20 states have already signed on, and the company is growing exponentially.
Zac Bookman, co-founder and CEO of OpenGov, sat down with TheBlaze in Washington, D.C. last week to talk about how his team is trying to make government "more data-driven, digital and efficient."
"[In founding OpenGov, my colleagues and I] discovered an epidemic in the United States," Bookman told TheBlaze. "That is that virtually every government of any shape and size is using an enterprise accounting system that runs on code written 30 years ago."
These "customized, on-premise, legacy systems" don't just make it hard for average citizens to learn more about government finances, Bookman said; in many cases, the antiquated complexity of these systems means that mayors and city managers can't easily access budget information.
Administrators are "fighting reams of paper" and it's costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary labor costs.
According to analysis by the California Policy Center, the average full-time city worker in the Golden State brings home nearly $125,000 in regular pay, benefits and overtime pay each year.
The Center’s analysis notes, “Because department classifications are not standardized among cities and counties, it is difficult if not impossible to compile compensation data by type of job,” but the fact remains: the more hours public employees spend wrestling with outdated budget technology, the more strain on city finances.
In order to fight that waste and inefficiency, governments need to overhaul their accounting systems, Bookman said, and the OpenGov team seems to have the right mix of experience to tackle the challenge: Bookman studied law at Yale and public administration at Harvard while much of the tech team at OpenGov studied at Stanford.
"Twenty years after the Internet came to my high school, now it's coming to local government," Bookman said. "Why is that? Well, it took 10 years for it to come to businesses and institutions that are a little more forward-leaning. Now it's ten years later and it's time to bring it to town hall."
A man enters Los angeles City Hall on Thursday, June 19, 2014, in Los Angeles. Completed in 1928 with more than 8,000 tons of structural steel, the building is one of the most recognized landmarks in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Bookman believes open platforms, like OpenGov, are part of a "coming transformation" in American society that will improve everything from healthcare to finance — while empowering the average citizen.
How could a citizen use OpenGov?
While "citizen watchdog" opportunities certainly exist, Bookman said much of the open platform's true value lies in how it can inform the conversation between citizen and government.
"You can go on OpenGov and see revenues by department, or by revenue type," Bookman said. "I could imagine a Glenn Beck listener or reader going on there and then sitting down at the dinner table with wife and kids, or husband and kids, and saying, 'This is how much money our town has and where the money comes from: taxes, fees, fines, state grants, federal grants.' All this complicated stuff, you can really understand how your government works."
Indeed, OpenGov's "FAQ" section touts the fact that after adopting OpenGov, cities tend to receive fewer, not more, questions from citizens — and Bookman said that's precisely because once they can see the data, citizens are often able to answer their own questions.
People might be surprised by the amount of a city budget dedicated to the police and fire department — "typically around two-thirds" — he added.
Bookman also noted that, "You can go see how much they're paying on pensions," though it won't be an all-encompassing figure since unfunded pension liabilities — an enormous and growing problem nationwide — aren’t normally included in accounting systems “precisely because they’re unfunded.”
For now, OpenGov just handles budget information, but Bookman said he hopes to eventually add more information, including demographics and crime statistics.
He also said OpenGov will work to connect cities across the country so that mayors and other decision-makers can learn from each other's mistakes and compare different approaches to handling taxpayer money.
Sunrise over Los Angeles City Hall, left. The City of Los Angeles is one of more than 100 municipal governments using the OpenGov platform. (Image via Steve Devol / flickr)
OpenGov's strongest presence is in California, but it's reaching into states like Texas, where the company recently added Fort Worth and Rockport, and Florida, where the Fort Lauderdale city government signed on.
OpenGov isn't the only game in town: Bookman said the company is facing competition, both from other private companies and municipal IT staff, as local governments take data online.
At the end of the day, Bookman said, his mission is to help government function better, and present a simple message: "It's not okay for government to operate in a vacuum."
This story has been updated.
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