(photo credit: Images_Of_Money)
Originally published in the OC Register .
Californians receive many of their core local services from special districts—including drinking water, sanitation, fire protection and parks and recreation. These districts abide by countless state mandates, which consist of the Brown and Public Records Acts, as well as ethics laws, financial audits and reports. But where can Californians go to easily access meaningful data on these and other local agencies? Individual districts and the State Controller have made commendable efforts to increase public awareness of district finances. However, much of this data exists in complex public budget documents or thick reports aggregating information from throughout the state.
Working in partnership, California Forward (CA Fwd) and the California Special Districts Association (CSDA), have launched a new tool for accessing key financial data on the state’s nearly 2,000 special districts (http://transparency.cafwd.org/portal/). Driven by data submitted by the districts to the State Controller, this expansion of CA Fwd’s Local Government Transparency Portal, which debuted earlier this year, includes three years of critical data points on district revenues, expenditures, reserves and obligations.
This data is supplemented by information on the services provided by each special district and the nature of district budgeting and fiscal responsibility. Additionally, the portal is linked to CSDA’s GIS project, “Putting Special Districts on the Map,” which allows users to map the locations of the districts throughout the state.
Why is this important?
Public financial information – revenue and expenditures – reflect priorities and values. Spending authority is a powerful tool to advance critical public goals in health, education, public safety and economic development. From the public’s perspective, the value of these services are determined by linking the cost of each service to its benefit. The special district portal is a shortcut to finding key information, and is a gateway to learning more about important service providers. Moreover, the project highlights the best transparency practices being developed in diverse communities across the state.
One challenge is the various features of the local services that special districts provide, and how they are funded. For this reason, the new portal includes glossaries and background information, connecting the data to the context, helping citizens understand the activities of each district. In addition, individual special districts can submit supplementary details on their specific strengths, constraints and objectives. Ultimately, we hope to expand this project to include even more information in the future.
Our efforts build upon the pro-active steps of other organizations. In 2013, the Special District Leadership Foundation launched the District Transparency Certificate of Excellence, a program that empowers and motivates special districts to implement more transparent practices. The program redefines transparency as a value necessary to an organization’s overall performance, and recognizes agencies that make positive changes.
Local agencies are seeing increased responsibilities for delivering essential local services and Californians will naturally want more information on how those services are delivered. The next step is up to you: We hope you will take a few moments to review this new project at http://transparency.cafwd.org/portal/, look up your local special districts and share your feedback.
Jim Mayer, is president and CEO of California Forward (CA Fwd), and Neil McCormick, is executive director of the California Special Districts Association (CSDA).