A smart city is an effective and accountable city

Wed, 2019-09-18 19:22 -- Adam Beck

A smart city generates a significant amount of data with the most important being a city or regions finances.

To be truly smart, a community must be empowered to understand how their money is being spent, that’s the story of OpenGov. Around the world, faith in expertise and institutions is at an all-time low. Fake news, political polarisation and media fragmentation are encouraging people to seek out their own answers. In this environment, how can a government manage the community demands to see their tax at work, delivering outcomes.  Through transparency, says one of the world’s leading govtech entrepreneur’s, Zac Bookman.

The cofounder and CEO of OpenGov, a “mission-driven” software company headquartered in Silicon Valley, Zac is driving public sector innovation and transformation at high speed.

Zac’s career history includes a masters’ degree in public administration, a stint as a trial lawyer and an advisor to army general H.R. McMaster’s anti-corruption task force in Afghanistan. These experiences gave him deep insights into the nexus between transparency and trust.

Then, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, as 12 local governments teetered on the bankruptcy, Zac and his cofounders thought “there has to be a better way” and turned to technology for solutions.

Today, OpenGov’s budgeting and performance software is used by more than 2,000 local governments across the United States, Canada and now in Australia. Zac is heading to Sydney in October for Smart Cities Week.

When taxpayers’ money is at stake, governments should “operate in glass houses”. Instead, their houses are opaque, held back by “old and clunky back office systems” that hinder analysis, insight, transparency and accountability.

OpenGov allows citizens to mine a rich seam of data about their local council: current and historical financial reports, expenditure on employees or capital projects, revenue breakdowns and more. Zac says making government data easily accessible promotes citizen engagement and enhances government accountability through transparency.

“There are better ways to work than making decisions in back rooms and using filing cabinets covered in dust or emailing and shifting paper around when building a budget. There is a more open and collaborative way of working that involves the community – and it happens to be more efficient as well,” he says.

The budgeting process in any organisation is the primary touchpoint for collaboration. Everyone who spends money must propose how much they’ll spend, as well as where, why and how. In most cases, local governments are navigating that budget process using a 30-year-old system or an Excel spreadsheet.

Once people take the “mental leap towards a more open and collaborative way of working,” they find it saves time and money, builds community trust, strengthens the social license to operate, and creates buy-in for capital projects.

Providing people with all the data at their fingertips generates less questions from the community – not more – “because people can ask questions and find the answers on their own”.

Since 2012, OpenGov has raised more than US$140 million in capital so it can continue to “build, build, build,” Zac says. In September, OpenGov acquired ViewPoint Cloud, a platform used by city governments to manage building codes, and help citizens apply for permits and licenses.

Zac is quick to emphasise that privacy concerns aren’t slowing down adoption of this technology, because transparent budgeting is not a privacy issue. “We don’t trade in private data,” he says. “We are talking about financial, performance and budget data – basically the core operations of a government.”

Zac points to a “world of cool ROI anecdotes”. At one municipal government, a transparent and collaborative approach uncovered a forgotten fund. Three new first responders were hired with the surplus cash, lowering emergency response times. “Without the software they would never have found that money,” he says.

Local governments often cite budget constraints and procurement processes as big barriers to investment. But Zac points to the risks ahead for those governments that don’t invest. His team “repeatedly” encounters governments “where there is one long-time employee who knows how to use the accounting system or build the budget”, or just one Excel spreadsheet that provides the entire financial picture. “What happens if that person retires or a link in Excel goes down?”

What’s Zac’s recommendation? “Start with the back-office processes that are the oldest or cause the most pain.”

While OpenGov’s platform is easy and intuitive – so much so he says a “nine-year-old can understand how their city is operating” – he emphasises that technology is not the primary change agent. “It takes courageous leaders inside government who want to make a change.”

Zac will be keynoting at Smart Cities Week Australia 2019 in Sydney, 30 October - 1 November. You can register here.