AGA’s Citizen Centric Reporting and Government Transparency
On October 17, 2013 I sat in on a webinar sponsored by the Association of Government Accountants (AGA) titled “Why Your leadership Should Produce a Citizen Centric Report.” Two speakers representing Scottsdale Arizona and Suffolk Virginia discussed their “citizen centric reporting programs.” They provided concrete examples of how to use models provided by AGA to generate straightforward and understandable accounts of what local governments do and how well they do it.
While Federal level agencies have used the AGA model (e.g., NSF, Patent Office, Architect of the Capitol, etc.) the focus here was on the special considerations local governments have. The idea behind AGA’s citizen centric reporting initiative is straightforward: give citizens numbers about the government they can understand. The program provides guidelines and templates for four-page reports in plain language that can be distributed to citizens:
- Page 1: Strategic Objectives. This includes basic information about the community expressed on a per capita basis.
- Page 2: How we are doing? This is a performance report on key missions and services and provides outcome measures for three or four of the government’s key missions or services.
- Page 3: What are the costs for servicing the citizens and how were these costs paid for? Using bar and pie charts provide revenue and cost data tied to the performance measures on page 2.
- Page 4: Challenges moving forward — what’s next? Future issues we need to deal with?
Here is a recording of the 57-minute webinar that includes displayed samples of the Scottsdale and Suffolk cases:
It seems like a simple idea, putting information about what your local government is doing into a brochure sized documents that, folded, can be inserted into a tax or utility bill and sent out to citizens. Assuming the data exist as input to the report and the local government agrees with the need to explain what it’s doing — important assumptions, obviously — the models displayed by AGA on its website and discussed at the webinar can go a long way to promoting openness and transparency.
Of course, the devil is in the details. Boiling a city’s 500-page annual financial report down to numbers and charts that fit on one page is no mean accomplishment. Sometimes what doesn’t bubble up to the top level can be just as meaningful as what does. Even putting the 500 page report on the city’s website so it can be downloaded won’t automatically generate true “transparency” if the contextual information explaining the numbers isn’t also available.
I’m not suggesting that the brief citizen centric reports being promoted by AGA aren’t useful; far from it. If planning, thought, and good design go into developing such reports, and if the report isn’t treated as a PR vehicle by politicians running for reelection, the report’s content can help establish a reporting baseline that all stakeholders can rely on for years to come.
“Tip of the Iceberg”
Think of the citizen centric report as the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to engaging with the public around the programs and performance statistics. Once published online each of the data elements presented in the original 4-page report can have “want to know more?” and “want an update?” links. That way the citizen centric report provides a “front door” for all the programs discussed in the report.
This approach requires more work than just dumping files and documents onto the city website for downloading. As important as making data available for innovative uses is in the overall scheme of things, it’s also important to provide contextual information so citizens begin to understand and appreciate the “why” and “how” associated with government programs. Using the basic structure of the citizen centric report as a “front door” to contextual and relate dinformation therefore makes good sense.
Putting a face on government service
Given recent sad experience with the Federal government shutdown I think it’s more important than ever for citizens to understand and appreciate what government workers do for them. If there’s one area where I would fault the highly compressed citizen centric reporting fostered by AGA it’s the lack of personalization that’s possible with a four page report that, by necessity, focuses on numbers and charts.
While a limited number of phone numbers and email addresses can be provided in a short brochure, when the report goes online, in addition to “want to know more?” and “want an update?” links, it should also be possible to provide contact information for someone to talk with about specific programs or statistics.
Perhaps there will be opposition to making government employee contact information freely available to citizens. Unfortunately, ignorance of government programs in the U.S., once we get beyond basic police, fire, education, and trash collection, is rampant. Perhaps “putting a face and name” on government services is one way to humanize government so that, when more shutdowns and sequesters loom, citizens won’t be in the dark about what they might be giving up.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald