Get Started with Online Financial Transparency
Here is a step-by-step guide that uses success stories and tips from Texas local government entities to help you get started with providing a transparent look at where your taxpayers' money goes.
- Review the resources and information available in your financial systems. Often, the information you need to post online to be financially transparent is already being generated in internal reports that could easily be made public. Your budget may be a complex document, but if your staff is also generating a simplified budget presentation, why not add it to your website? Do you generate a monthly audit report of your organization's expenditures? If it is a comprehensive record of expenses, it could help you meet the Leadership Circle check/expense register criteria.
- Work with your existing staff to design and set up a Web page to host the fiscal transparency information. If your organization does not have the staff needed to set up a website, there are alternative options. The County Information Resources Agency will create and host websites for counties. Some small Texas cities have reported partnering with a local school district, chamber of commerce or other organization to create a website. Once your entity has a website in place, it can be very easy to update it with new information.
- Determine how your organization can easily convert documents to standard formats such as PDF or HTML, which are easily accessible to the public via the Web. Documents can be saved in PDF format from documents created in newer versions of Microsoft Office. Alternative, there is free software that can convert documents for you. Your accounting system may even be able to export your existing reports to PDF or html.
- Offer a link on your site for users to download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to access the PDFs you have posted.
- Analyze how your information can best be presented online and how it can be easily read and understood by the public.
- It is helpful to post financial data is on a central financial transparency Web page, even if different departments created the reports. Financial documents can be posted directly to that page, or the page can contain links to individual department pages where the documents are posted.
- Most organizations have charts and graphs that help explain complex financial information in their budget and audit documents. If that information is relevant and helpful to your citizens, post those charts and graphs on your financial transparency Web page?
- A budget might be itemized by categories such as projects and departments for quicker scanning by viewers.
- A list of vendors whom your entity has used over the past six to 12 months could be posted online listing vendor details, the amount paid, the goods/services received, and the date of the payment.
- Financial transparency can also include open contracts available for bid and bidding rules and requirements. Opening this information up to the public may lead to more bids submitted for your contracts.
- Transparency is important, but be sure to identify and remove any confidential information from financial documents. Payroll and withholding information should be consolidated and added to the check register or listed in a separate monthly report. Only show totals for employee salaries, benefits and other payroll deductions to avoid the release of confidential data.
If you have questions regarding what data is considered confidential, contact the Attorney General's Open Government Hotline at 877-OPEN TEX (877-673-6839).
- Identify a staff person who will be responsible for editing out confidential items and preparing financial data selected for online posting.
- Review your open records requests to see if there is information that is commonly requested. Posting that information online can reduce the amount of time spent responding to requests for public information.
- Include a contact form or e-mail address for taxpayers to submit feedback.
- Continually seek new ways that financial data can be provided to the public by leveraging technology and responding to feedback.
Tips on posting the Check Register
Many organizations that are considering financial transparency for the first time expect posting the check register to take a great deal of time each month. But it might take less time than you expect. We surveyed local governments about their experiences with transparency. Of those who responded:
- 69 percent reported that it takes less than one hour per month to post the check register online.
- 6 percent said it took longer than four hours per month to post the check register online.
You may be able to use your accounting software to create expenditure reports that can be created once and repeated each month. If not, software such as Quicken or Microsoft Money can download transactions from your bank after they are made. Your bank's website may also allow you to download a spreadsheet detailing all of your organization's transactions each month.
There are two main points to be aware of when posting a check register online.
- First, employee pay, benefits and withholding amounts are confidential information. These transactions should be consolidated into totals within the check register or in a separate monthly expense report.
- Secondly, to meet the check/expense register criteria for the Leadership Circle, an organization must post all transactions, including electronic transactions, not just written checks.