Can you see your tax dollars at work? Boosting accountability, efficiency and transparency the Louisville KY way

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How accountable and how transparent should public bodies be? Whether council departments within local government, Executive departments or their arms length bodies, do you wish you could see how your money – your taxes and rates – were being spent?

These organisations all produce annual reports and high level financial figures. Relatively few councils seem to publish any form of targets – other than perhaps recycling levels – and show regular progress towards or away from those figures. Progress reported against the Programme for Government at an NI Executive level can be woolly too, lacking figures to back up progress against numerical targets, and often marking against unspecific goals. [Click through for an example taken from the March 2011 PfG delivery report.]

On an e-Governance programme last September* I saw examples in the states commonwealths of Massachusetts and Kentucky of opening up information about spending as well as organisational performance to the public.

LouisvilleKydotGov loglLouisville is the largest city in Kentucky (though not the capital), with a population of 741,096 in the consolidated city-county area. The front page of the Louisville Metro website has a link to answer the question “I want to … See my tax dollars at work”.

Instead of some bland pages showing departmental spend, the link leads to a suite of data mining tools:

Louisville Checkbook allows you to drill into the spending of each agency/department, through a hierarchy of categories right down to the itemised monthly payments made, eg Agency -> Parks & Recreation -> Athletics & Community Centers -> Athletics -> Contractual Service -> Equipment Rental -> and then see their monthly photocopier payments. You can also look up any of the contracts, hundreds of scanned pages with very little redaction (eg, the Minolta contract for photocopiers/printers), and look at funding sources.

Louisville Checkbook snippet

City Employees Salaries allows you to look up the annual salary, overtime and incentive/allowance of any city employee, from the Mayor ($110,346,60) to his speech writer ($45,910.80). Twenty five people have a higher salary than the Mayor. Every employee – other than police informants – are listed.

City Employees Salaries snippet

Even without this voluntary disclosure of information, the Open Records legislation in Kentucky requires any state/country/city office/agency to respond to public requests for information within three working days. Compare that with the workings of the UK or Irish Freedom of Information Acts.

LouieStatLouieStat is perhaps the most innovative aspect of Louisville Metro’s emerging online transparency measures.

A handful of staff within the Office of Performance Improvement have been working with each department to define Key Performance Indicators. The current status along with the goal (when appropriate) and a Red/Amber/Green traffic light is published along with historic tracking information. The data is updated every two or three months.

There are some standard enterprise measures like dollars spent on overtime and hours lost due to work related illness and injury, along with department-specific metrics. Metro Animal Services track the percentage of calls not responded to within seven days. The Economic Growth and Innovation department (think Invest NI or Enterprise Ireland) track the jobs they have created, the annual salary of those jobs, and the number of active new clients.

Louisville Economic Growth and Innovation KPIs

Not everything is green. The strategy has been to get departments to define some KPIs and immediately publish them online – good or bad – and then provide the techniques and encouragement to drive through improvements and efficiency measures to meet the Mayor’s goal that “every department in the city of Louisville should at a minimum be in the top quartile of performance compared to our national competitors”. In the first year of running, departments representing 45% of the operating budget have been brought on board.

Together, these services make Louisville Metro more accountable, increase the transparency of how they spend (and earn) their funds, and spur them on to improve the quality and value of their services. The ongoing cost has been minimised by building contract scanning into business as usual processes and automating the feeds of financial and salary information.

It’s a long way from the glossy annual reports that come through NI ratepayers’ letterboxes each year, full of photographs and light on detail. While many NI councils will have internal KPIs, do any councils publish regularly data on their performance, and publish it in a manner that is readily accessible to members of the public (rather than buried in minutes of council committee meetings)?

Theresa Reno-Weber who heads up the Louisville Office of Performance Improvement is over in Ireland – north and south – next week meeting local and central government groups (and others). Update – for folk who didn’t get along to her talks, I recorded a brief interview with Theresa about LouieStat and Louisville Metro’s work to become to best governed city in the US. Surely food for though for local public bodies, particularly in the context of local government reorganisation and a focus on Executive delivery?

* The e-Governance programme was organised by the Irish Institute at Boston College with funding from the United States Department of State.

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  • http://gravatar.com/joeharron Mister_Joe

    That is a good blog Alan and I think that there needs to be more transparency everywhere that public money is spent.
    For about 10 years or so ago, here in Ontario, every public employee, even arms length ones, who earns more than $100,000 has the name and salary paid publicly disclosed.

  • Local Government Officer

    I’d say this could be very easily implemented from “now” – say post-RPA…if it ever happens… – as opposed to making people wade through previous data. Cos really, who cares about 1996?

    It’ll cost. Who foots the bill? This needs resourced, and by that, I mean dedicated people – the people working on the individual services need to make the time, I.T. needs to make the time…these systems which purport to sit in the background collecting data, end up costing more in human resource hours than was ever first envisaged.

    You do know that all councils are supposed to have days where members of the public can examine the books in their offices? I have no idea about lengths of time, windows of opportunity, etc, but I know ratepayers who have done it. One in particular makes it a yearly ritual.

    My own local council produces a quarterly report on their performance. It’s published on the website. It’s reported to councillors with the press in the room.

    …all of which leads me to a more salient point – the general public themselves rarely educate themselves enough to know what a council does. Or indeed many of the other public bodies. We still get calls about houses and roads. You could very easily implement this system tomorrow, but just how many people will bother their arses to use it – outside of us Slugger nerds?

    Alan – despite all I’ve written – I think this is a good idea, and as someone in the system, I’d encourage people to be more questioning. This system could help to make the questioning a little easier – IF people can ask the right questions…

  • http://alaninbelfast.blogspot.com Alan in Belfast

    LGO – RPA seems like a great opportunity to get groups of councils (even if not all of them) to share the cost of implementing these kind of solutions. And even LouieStat has started quite small and is growing in a sustainable way.