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Criteria for Fiscal Transparency

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Last year, we set out on a project to evaluate the online fiscal transparency of every locality in Virginia. We graded every county and city on how much financial information they put online for their citizens. What budget documents did jurisdictions make available online? How much information about expenditures? What about information on government contractors?

In the end, the results weren’t good. Most jurisdictions got 40-50 points out of 100 and more than a few didn’t score any points.

Well, a year later, we’re beginning the process again. Mostly we’ll be scoring on similar criteria as last year, but the process of conducting the study gave us some ideas of where we needed to improve our scorecard.

Last year we broke our scoring down into four big categories. Jurisdictions were evaluated on Budget Documents Presented, Extent of Data, Expenditure Information and Contracting Information.

This year, we plan to break out the categories a little more. One thing we quickly learned evaluating local government websites last year was that many were simply impossible to use. Some counties had incredibly useful portal pages that directed users to exactly what they were looking for. Others, however, had budget documents hidden deep in the innards of their website with no way to find them. One county even had a budget posted that was not linked to by any page on their site. It was literally impossible to find if you didn’t know the exact web address.

To better take these issues into account, this year we plan on including an Ease of Website Use category. Under the heading of this category jurisdictions will be scored on:

  • How to Find Budget Documents (3 points)
    • This will be a largely subjective score
    • Successful counties should have a link to either a budget portal page or finance department page from their homepage.
    • Budget information should not be more than 4 clicks away from the homepage.
  • Budget Portal Page (3 points)
    • One page that collects all budget documents in one place and provides a home base for users.
    • Should provide information on the budget process.
    • Should provide links to the budget archives.
    • Fairfax County is an example of a jurisdiction with a successful portal page.
  • Provides Context on Documents (3 points)
    • More than just a list of documents.
    • Citizens unfamiliar with the budget process should be able to make sense of the documents presented and find what they are looking for.
    • Allows users to understand what a document is without having to open it.
    • A single document labeled “Budget” is not sufficient.
    • Henrico County is an example of a jurisdiction that would receive full points in this category.
  • Archives (4 points)
    • At least 5 years of archived budget documents must be available in order to get credit.
  • Subjective Ease of Use Score (2 points)
  • Subjective score given by evaluator on how easy it is to find and use budget documents presented on site

One of our goals in last year’s study was to evaluate how easy it is for ordinary citizens to follow along with the budget process as it is happening. Towards that end we included scores for each step of the budgeting process. This year, we’re going to make it an explicit category. Our Following the Budget Process category will include points for:

  • Advertised/Proposed Budget (7 points)
    • Localities must post the county administrator or board’s initial proposal that begins the budget cycle.
  • Budget Markup Information (4 points)
    • Information on how the budget was changed by the jurisdiction’s board.
    • Allows citizens to see what changes were made to the initial budget proposal.
    • This document must be posed on the budget page, not hidden in board minutes. Jurisdictions without an explicit link to markup information will not receive points in this category.
    • Fairfax County is an example of a county that successfully posts their markup information.
    • On their budget portal page they both post video of the Board of Supervisors marking up the budget and a list of board motions made during the session.
  • Adopted/Final Budget (10 points)
    • The final budget document adopted by the jurisdiction that will govern the next fiscal year.
  • Carryover Package (4 points)
    • Any adjustments made to the adopted budget after it is passed.
    • Must be listed on the budget page. Adjustments that are only listed in board minutes will not score points.
    • Again, Fairfax County is an example of a jurisdiction that would receive full points in this category.
  • Information on Budget Timeline and Important Dates (2 points)
    • Budget page provides information on how the budgeting decisions are made and notes opportunities for citizen involvement.
    • Relevant hearing dates and public workshops are listed in advance.
  • Documents Posted in Timely Manner (3 points)

The next category we will score jurisdictions on is Extent of Information

  • Data Available to Program Level (4 points)
    • Budget documents present more than just departmental data.
    • Programs administered within departments that have defined budgets are listed.
  • Data Searchable (3 points)
    • The PDF of budget documents allows users to search.
  • Microsoft Excel Files Available (3 points)
    • Budget information not solely available as .PDF or HTML file. Citizens can download the data in spreadsheet form to use in their own analysis.

Expenditure Information is another category that will be returning from last year’s study. The sexiest subcategory in this area is presenting an online checkbook. Ever since the federal government and several state governments implemented online checkbooks in the middle of the 2000s, there has been intense pressure for governments of all levels to put their spending online in near realtime. Last year, we included a score for having an online checkbook and gave half points if jurisdictions posted their Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) in lieu of a checkbook. This year we’ve decided to split them out into different categories, to better reward jurisdictions that go above and beyond in posting expenditure information.

  • Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (10 points)
    • A jurisdiction’s annual audit
    • Jurisdictions will be docked points if they do not spell out what a CAFR is. Many jurisdictions simply post a link to a document called CAFR with no explanation of what it is.
  • Spending Updates/Checkbook (8 points)
    • Full points will be awarded for either an online check register or a periodically updated spending report
    • Goochland County is an example of a jurisdiction that would receive full points for an online check register.
    • The City of Alexandria is an example of a jurisdiction that would receive full points for spending updates.
  • Updated Frequently (4 points)
    • Full points awarded for monthly updates or better
    • Half points for quarterly updates.
  • Data to program level (3 points)
    • Data is available beyond department spending.

The final category we evaluated in our original study was Contract Information. This was the area we learned the most about in evaluating websites last year. To better score what jurisdictions are offering we have completely revamped our contracting criteria.

  • Requests for Proposals/Invitiations for Bids (5 points)
    • RFPs/IFBs are posted to a publicly accessible website
  • Awards (5 points)
    • Contract award notices are posted to the same site as RFPs
    • Contract award notices that are hidden in board minutes will not receive points
  • Archive (5 points)
    • Contract awards to not cycle off website after short period
    • Awards for all active contracts listed

The final category we will be using to evaluate jurisdictions this year will be Contact Information. This is a new category this year.

  • Elected Officials (2 points)
    • Contact information for elected officials
  • Staff (2 points)
    • Contact information for the county manager and budget department head
  • FOIA Point Person (1 point)
    • The person to contact regarding Freedom of Information Act Requests

One of our goals in publishing this list of criteria before we begin to collect data is to get some useful feedback from the Bacon’s Rebellion community. So what do you think? Is there anything that we are missing? What categories are we scoring that shouldn’t be? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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