Data-driven benchmarking: Keeping up with the government next door

Data-driven benchmarking: Keeping up with the government next door

At a time when data-driven decision making is becoming more important, a new tool gives city and county governments nearly instant access to other municipalities' open data, enabling officials to compare their performance with that of their peers.

OpenGov's Comparisons tool lets subscribers to its OpenGov Intelligence platform search for budget, crime and population data from participating governments nationwide. Available for an annual subscription fee based on population, the tool takes data in whatever format a local government has and normalizes it for others to use.

The classic use case is a city manager who is preparing a report about how much the city spends on police services compared to its neighbors or a peer set, explained Zac Bookman, a cofounder of OpenGov, a cloud-based financial reporting and intelligence company.                                    

Previously, making such cross-city or cross-county comparisons meant spending hours contacting the appropriate officials for the information and then compiling it in a meaningful way. It's also tricky because while one city might use the term "animal control," another might say "animal services." Comparisons eliminates that complexity by figuring out that the two terms might actually mean the same service.

OpenGov does not require localities to use a particular data format."We work with over 50 accounting systems," Bookman said. "The power of this Comparisons product is that we use data science to help normalize [data] across entities to try to get comparisons."

Subscribers allow the tool to access their open data, which is then searchable by city or county name.

Here's how governments typically use Comparisons: To see how their city compares to a neighboring one or to another of similar size, officials open Comparisons and search for the criteria they want to compare. They can change views to get a five-year moving trend line across the governments. They can normalize per capita data or overlay FBI crime data. What's more, officials can quickly create charts and graphs to represent the information visually.

"Now you're cooking with gas," Bookman said. "You've done all this in minutes -- in what used to take weeks -- and you've got a higher level of granularity, analysis, reporting and visual capabilities."

Governments with a budget of at least $1 million are the target customers, and to use the software-as-a-service tool, they need only a web browser and a subscription. But several governments are trying it out for free. Greenwood, Ind., for example, is about halfway through its year-long free trial, which it got because it's a subscriber to OpenGov's Financial Transparency portal. The cost to the city for that service is $8,500 per year.

Greenwood uses Comparisons in two main ways, City Controller Adam Stone said. One is for high-level strategic planning.

"It's allowed us to very quickly compare ourselves with other cities across the country … because of the way we can normalize [the information] by populations or census data," Stone said. With Comparisons, you can look at data from “cities that are outside your state that a lot of times you wouldn't even know to look into."

The other use is internal budgetary decision-making. When department managers ask for data, Comparisons serves as an independent, third-party source, providing data that can tell a story, Stone said.

Benchmarking, for example, used to be a lot more involved, Stone said. "When you're planning a meeting and you've got relatively short notice, it's hard to get the information sometimes.... With the OpenGov product, in a matter of minutes, we can pull up a chart or graph. The time savings has been huge."

In California, counties can test out Comparisons with a grant from Innovate Your State, a nonprofit that encourages public participation in government. So far, five counties have applied for the grant, in addition to the 10 already using it.

Looking ahead, Stone said Greenwood plans to use Comparisons for management applications in addition to financial ones.

Because the data is accessible only by government subscribers, it's a very vertical product, Bookman said. While Comparisons is available to every local government, even school districts are beginning to sign on, he said, with OpenGov picking up about one new government client each day.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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