Harris County: Full Transparency
Harris County, the nation's third-largest county, has embraced full transparency by placing its annual budgets, financial statements, comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFRs) and check register on its Web site.
The county placed its CAFRs and budgets online in 2003, and its monthly financial statements in 2004. Its check register followed about 18 months ago. These steps entailed only minimal costs and were completed in house without specialized software.
In addition, Harris County's Web site also features annual estimates of available funds and revenues; special reports called “Popular Annual Reports” intended to explain county financial information for lay audiences; and additional budgetary information including budgets materials, statistical information and capital improvement plans. According to Mike Post, the county's chief assistant auditor, “we ask ourselves what else to put on the Web site that would be useful.”
Harris County has received positive feedback on its efforts. Orlando Sanchez, Harris County treasurer, says “it sends the message to the public that we are partners, we have nothing to hide, this is how we spend.” Taxpayers tell him they appreciate the online check register in particular. According to Sanchez, this “allows the public to see what types of services” are used by the county and to “see how the money is being used.” The ready availability of online budget data also reduced county printing costs.
For Harris County, the process involved in increasing transparency was fairly straightforward. As Post says, “you set [transparency] as one of your goals” and then talk to personnel about how to place information on the Web site. And, then, according to Tony Guardiola, deputy director of the county's Office of Budget Management, “you figure what types of information to put online” and seek buy-in from the commissioners' court.