Definitions and Key Questions

Why a Transparency Portal?
California Forward believes in the importance of working together and understands that only robust public discussion and the creation of broad coalitions can move solutions forward. The Portal is committed to building on these concepts and encouraging thoughtful discussion on these key questions:

What Does Transparency Mean?
Truly, “transparency” means many things to many people. At its most basic level, a Transparent Government is one that advertises pending decisions, making key factors broadly available before meetings, provides ways for the public to ask questions and express preferences before and during the answer, encourages elected officials to publicly discuss options and explain the reasons for their individual and collective decisions, the decision is broadly advertised and the results are publicly tracked and reported.

Key Considerations:

Each Jurisdiction is Unique and Change is Often Incremental
Budget documents, public forums and timetables are as unique as the jurisdictions they serve. What works in Palo Alto may not work in Pomona, and public engagement is general a function of the area’s distinct culture. While the Portal seeks to promote stronger and more robust transparency efforts, it recognizes there are no single solutions.

Additionally, progress begins with first steps. Indeed, in its guidelines for sound management practices, the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) notes that “Partial implementation is encouraged as progress toward a recognized goal.”

Performance Data is Useless without Proper Context.
In the 2007 book “Full Disclosure: The Perils and Promise of Transparency,” Harvard Kennedy School faculty Archon Fung, Mary Graham and David Weil explore the burgeoning transparency movement in the public and private sectors and how increased availability of data and rising public demand for accountability are reshaping public discourse. Among the core issues are the pitfalls of disclosure without definition.  The authors caution that “Whether and how new information is used to further public objectives depends upon its incorporation into complex chains of comprehension, action, and response.”

The thesis of Full Disclosure is that transparency must satisfy the needs of ordinary citizens.

What is a Transparent Budget Process?
Local government has been the vanguard for transparent budgeting in the US for more than a century. New York City was the first major government in the country to adopt a formal budget. At the time, it was said that “the budget system rests on popular control; the budget will publicize what government is doing and make for an informed and alert citizenry; the budget will destroy the rule of invisible government.” Budgets have evolved since then, expanding to include such reforms as line-item budgets, performance budgets and other models, but the essential mission of the process is the same.

At a time when “Party Bosses” and tycoons often held immense sway at every level of government, New York’s process was visionary, and by the mid-1920’s most major cities in the US had established systems. Congress itself did not modernize its systems until 1921.

Today, technology, economic struggles and an increasingly diverse citizenry have driven an even greater demand for transparency and accountability – at every level of government. Each of these issues is amplified In California. With a population that is, broadly, more technologically savvy and diverse, California is also impacted by economic challenges that exceed much of the nation. Much attention is paid to breaches of trust in certain communities, but with a number of municipalities entering bankruptcy in recent years, the demand for accountability is only bolstered a real need for genuine public engagement on tough choices facing local policymakers.

Key Questions to Ask when considering a city, county or school district budget:

Is the City’s Budget document online? Is it easy to find and organized in a straightforward, logical way?

Is there an explanation of the local agency’s decision-making process and how to participate in it? Is there a clear timeline laid out to city residents regarding the budget process?

Is there a clear Budget Policy Statement? A central document that lays out the jurisdiction’s policies on balanced budgeting, operating reserves, debt and other key issues?

What opportunities are there for public input on budget priorities? How are these opportunities promoted, and to whom?

Does the budget document meet the criteria established by the GFOA, which provides a set of best practices on budgeting to guide solid financial management?

What data is most important to share?
The Transparency Portal is focused on local governments in California, and seeks to identify the best practices in exposing both budget documents and the decision making process to public review and input. Certainly, as each city and school district is unique, so too are its budget practices. Owing to layered legal and financial regulations, and because of the unique nature of public services, public budgets also tend to be more complex than those of small or large businesses. As such, many community members may not possess the tools to understand finished budget documents, or discern the critical steps in the decision making process.

What's the most valuable way to engage the public in the budget process and other key decisions?
Citizen input into the budgeting process is widely considered to be a cornerstone of good management in local jurisdictions. In some cities, counties and school districts, this culture of citizen involvement rises to a level of formalized “participatory budgeting.”

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a structured process in which community members have direct input on portions of the public budget. The first government to implement a true participatory budgeting process was the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. In order to counter an authoritarian tradition, community members were given the opportunity to vote on potential projects. Today as many as 50,000 of the city’s more than 1.5 million residents engage in the process annually, helping shape as much as 20 percent of the city’s spending.

Here in California, the City of Vallejo approved the first city-wide participatory budgeting process in the US, just this year. Other, smaller scale projects in California and across the US have engaged citizens in prioritizing city services and even long term land use planning.

Because so many California cities vary widely in age, ethnicity and other factors, this approach to community involvement is increasingly appealing, particularly in light of many difficult spending choices for cash-strapped jurisdictions.

Participatory Budgeting is certainly not the only way to pursue robust citizen involvement in budgeting, but it certainly increases transparency by cultivating a closer relationship between elected representatives and their constituents.

The Institute for Local Government has a good list of core questions for public officials to ask in shaping public input on budget decisions.

How can pending decisions be best advertised?
Local governments’ approach to public engagement is varied, and ranged from one-way communication and outreach, to public participation and long-term collaborative problem solving. At a base level, pending decisions should be advertised in a way consistent with the community’s culture and character. For instance, if a city has a large ethnic population, then materials should reflect that diversity with multi-lingual materials.

Indeed, the International City Management Association includes in its Code of Ethics for public managers a tenant to “Keep the community informed on local government affairs; encourage communication between the citizens and all local government officers; emphasize friendly and courteous service to the public; and seek to improve the quality and image of public service.”

What terms does the public need to understand?
Public Budgeting is a complex process, with numerous layers of legal and financial regulations that can contribute to documents that are dense and inaccessible to many of us. The Portal has assembled a toolkit that includes a glossary of terms, and more importantly, a guide to the critical steps in the decision making process.