Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with City Council’s vote approving the contract with OpenGov and quotes from Assistant City Manager Maria Villagomez and Councilman Ray Lopez (D6).
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City Council approved a contract on Thursday with OpenGov, a Silicon Valley-based technology company which aims to provide a simple-to-use platform for citizens to access information about the inner workings of their local government – especially when it comes to financial reports.
“Every year, we challenge ourselves to provide a better service to the community in terms of making the budget more accessible and transparent, so (OpenGov) is one of those efforts,” said María Villagomez, assistant city manager and former City of San Antonio budget director.
The City evaluated proposals from three different companies who provide governmental transparency services, scoring each one based on its qualifications, experience and background, proposed plan, and price schedule. OpenGov received the highest score, and City Council approved a $237,430 three-year contract during Thursday’s meeting.
San Antonio is a five-time consecutive winner of the Leadership Circle Award, the highest award from the State Comptroller of Public Accounts which recognizes local governments for their exceptional transparency efforts, but Villagomez said more could be done to make accessing information more “user-friendly.”
That’s what OpenGov does.
“The idea here is that this data can really be leveraged to help people operate more effectively,” said OpenGov CEO Zac Bookman. “It’s not that administrators want to hide (the information), it’s just that it’s often trapped away in legacy accounting systems and other silos.”
Since its start in 2012, OpenGov has been implemented in 44 states across the country, serving more than 750 government entities. In Texas, the platform is being used in more than 20 cities including Rockport and Tyler, but San Antonio would be its largest Texas venture yet.
The OpenGov interface provides government entities a more efficient way to organize and share information like annual expense reports, the City checkbook, and contracts signed by City Council.
The only way to currently access the City’s financial records is through its website, www.sanantonio.gov, which offers current and archived information in a series of PDF files. For City records relating to health, transportation, or capital improvements, for example, citizens can file an open record request, but the process of doing so is often lengthy and complicated.
With its high-capacity cloud network, OpenGov is able to store and organize such information making it accessible to all with the click of a button.
With the implementation of the platform, the City will still maintain its current website, Villagomez said, but will add OpenGov as a new module on the page which will “enhance the existing information.” Additionally, City staff will be trained by OpenGov representatives to accurately input information into the system.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) said it’s always been a priority for him and his colleagues to “increase confidence and access to the day-to-day operations of city government.” He sees OpenGov as a way to keep the public more actively engaged and knowledgable about the inner workings of the city.
“It shouldn’t take a public investigator’s license to search through public record, and it shouldn’t require a credit card and an ability to fill out web forms to get basic information about how the government is spending hard earned money,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to have access to that information because the (government officials) they’ve entrusted with making decisions are working for them.”
Nirenberg, Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), and Councilman Cris Medina (D7) are encouraging public entities like SAWS and CPS Energy to also consider using OpenGov.
Now that City Council has approved the initiative, one of the first main focuses for the City’s Office of Management and Budget will be using OpenGov in the proposed 2017 budget planning process.
“If you were to look at our current budget document, it’s probably about 600-800 pages, so it’s very challenging to navigate,” Villagomez said. “One of the purposes of using OpenGov is being able to give more accessibility in terms of accessing the data we already have available.”
The platform is a “great step forward” in the City’s transparency efforts, Lopez said. The next focus, he added, should be public awareness.
“It’s important that we roll this out to the community and give them a tutorial on how to use it,” he said.
The City’s Office of Management and Budget is planning strategic public communication efforts, Villagomez said, that will notify residents of the platform’s implementation. They’re planning to host open houses with the community where the public can learn more about OpenGov and how it operates, she said.
OpenGov should officially be installed and ready in time for the City’s goal setting and budget process in August, Villagomez said. In the future, the City will look to add more aspects of financial information, including a comprehensive annual financial report and performance measures in comparison to other cities within the OpenGov network.
There was no particular incident that prompted the City to consider utilizing OpenGov, Nirenberg said, other than the dedication City officials have to maintain public trust.
“It’s a layer of accountability that has not existed before, but it’s so important in this day and age,” he said.
*Top image: The OpenGov office is in Redwood City, Calif. Photo by Nader Khouri, courtesy of OpenGov.