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OpenGov Offers Head-to-Head Budget Comparisons for Government

Civic tech startup OpenGov has released a tool to analyze budgets city to city, department by department, for financial strategy and policy making.

The financial transparency startup OpenGov has a new tool in its chest of budget visualization apps.

On Oct. 28, OpenGov Co-founders Nate Levine, Joe Lonsdale and CEO Zac Bookman, announced a new feature called OpenGov Comparisons. The analytics tool, available only for internal users, is marketed as a digital scale that instantly weighs one city’s expenditures and revenues against another's. Financial planners might use the analysis to identify budget benchmarks for expenditures in public safety, transportation, public works and other services.

Officials first select a government to compare. This could be a city with a similar population, a neighboring city, or a city with roughly the same amount of general funds. Next, finance and performance can be compared in a click. The comparisons work specifically within the OpenGov Network, a grouping of more than 500 governments across 44 states and includes the U.S. Census and other preloaded metrics on finance and performance.

Bookman said the tool is incredibly useful in doing self-audits, and in a blog post gave the example of comparing police budgets with criminal activity. For example, if city officials find they’re paying more for law enforcement than a similarly sized city yet are seeing higher crime rates, an investigation could determine if funds could be better used.

Using OpenGov’s public budget tools and outside data, this appears to be the case for Miami and Minneapolis. The cities share a population size of about 400,000, as well as a similar living wage, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. But Miami spends more on police and has higher crime.

In their 2014 budgets, Minneapolis spent $145.6 million on police while Miami spent $174.4 million. Even with that extra $28.8 million, or about 20 percent more, the FBI reported 2014 murders and manslaughter incidents in Miami were more than double those in Minneapolis at 81 to 31. Overall, Miami’s violent crimes exceeded Minneapolis' as well, at about 422,000 to 404,000. The same held true in property crime, which was slightly higher at about 20,400 incidents in Miami to 19,100 in Minneapolis.

According to OpenGov's public data, submitted by the cities, these police budgets in 2016 are likely to extend the spending gap, with Miami proposing $204.4 million and Minneapolis $157.7 million — a $46.7 million gap and difference of about 30 percent.

Fresh from a $25 million round of investment this month, OpenGov envisions the tool to foster a network of collaboration and learning as governments harness apple-to-apple comparisons and potentially avoid costly financial consulting fees.

In an email to Government Technology, Bookman answered a few questions about the rollout of OpenGov Comparisons.

Government Technology: What sparked the idea for the new tool?
Zac Bookman, OpenGov CEO and Co-Founder: It has always been part of our vision to build a network where governments can easily learn from each other. We heard early on that benchmarking is a slow, expensive and cumbersome process for governments. We set out to change that by first building a network where governments share accurate financial data with each other. We now combine that information with publicly available performance data, and apply data science to present information in the right context, so governments get immediate answers to important questions and eliminate numerous manual tasks. The result is smart, apples-to-apples comparisons of financial and performance data without all the hassles.

GT: How do you see users applying it?
Bookman: Comparisons help public administrators during their budget processes, provide context on performance to the media and the public, help recruit and retain employees with competitive compensation packages, and inspire innovation within their government. The product is available to cities in the OpenGov Network, as part of our OpenGov Intelligence operational reporting solution. We envision finance directors, department heads, city managers, elected officials and other administrators getting unprecedented access to critical data to inform decisions anytime they need it. 

GT: Based on development and research, can you give two to three examples of comparative analysis between similar cities, agencies, departments, etc.?

Bookman: One of the biggest use cases is benchmarking during the budgeting process. Governments benchmark key areas like public safety and property tax revenues with their neighbors, and OpenGov makes the processes easier and quicker.

Governments also use comparisons to inform the public about performance outcomes, such as the relationship between spending on key services like police and the impact on performance metrics like crime rates in neighboring cities.

We’ve even heard of cases where comparisons enable governments to identify “piggybacking” opportunities for purchases. Smaller governments can see where others are making similar purchases and reach out to make purchases together.

GT: While many government officials might love the new functionality, what would you tell officials who fear the tool might present their jurisdiction negatively when compared to another?
Bookman: OpenGov Comparisons is an internal tool and the public does not currently have access to the network. It is our belief that all governments can benefit from sharing insights and learning from one another. And that every jurisdiction has something that other cities would benefit from.

GT: It seems the tool would also be very helpful to citizens as well. Will some form of it be offered to citizens in the future?

Correct, this feature is for governments in the OpenGov Network for now. We certainly see the value for citizens, and everything is on the table for future product development.

GT: Looking at the big picture, and assuming the tool is scaled across many governments, what's the ideal vision for the tool?
Bookman: We think governments in the OpenGov Network will ultimately become more efficient, make better policy decisions, and even increase their purchasing power. Better planning, efficiency and spending leads to improved services for constituents and more efficient use of tax dollars.

GT: As far as costs go, is there an additional charge jurisdictions have to pay to access OpenGov Comparisons?
Bookman: Comparisons is included as part of the OpenGov Intelligence package. Pricing is scaled according to budget size. There are no additional charges for customers who are already on the Intelligence package, and the feature is now available to use [for cities] in the platform. Customers using the OpenGov Transparency package can upgrade to OpenGov Intelligence to gain access to Comparisons.

GT: Anything else you'd like to add about the launch?
Bookman: We’re eager to see how governments begin using the new functionality and to gather feedback so we can make the product even better. There are so many benefits governments can glean from connecting with each other online, we think this is the beginning of a practice that will be standard and expected in the next several years.

This article was originally published on Government Technology.