Benchmarking for better government

What if I told you the U.S. Government spends $581 billion on defense spending?

You’d probably say this sounds like a huge figure – a number that is unfathomable and tough to relate to.

What if I then gave you this same figure in another context: the U.S. Government spends $1,782 per person every year which is 1,776% higher than the next highest spending nation on defense.

Some may say this is good and necessary; some may say that is outrageous.

Regardless of your vantage, the point of this exercise is to emphasize how necessary context is when discussing financial metrics. In other words, the figure sounded huge to begin with, but it was not until you compared this figure to other countries on a per capita basis that its enormity became apparent and the figure became relatable to you on a personal level.

Unfortunately, most governments approach financial transparency by simply posting complexing and overwhelming PDFs or spreadsheets to their website. They take the honorable step of sharing their financial statements, but do not offer the reader any context. Citizens simply glaze over when they are confronted by a sea of large numbers with many zeros. These figures need to be relatable to the person reading the data. Otherwise, open data is just more data that dies on the vine.

ClearGov was founded to confront this very problem.

The ClearGov concept started with one very simple question: Should I vote “yes” or “no” for my town to fund $7 million of debt to build a new school?

I wanted to vote “yes,” but I thought to myself:

  • “How much does the town already spend on education?”
  • “Are we spending too much already?”
  • “How much debt does the town have now?”
  • “Do we have too much debt already?”
  • “Are our debt levels getting better or worse?”

In searching for answers on the town’s website, I found an 215-page annual report that was riddled with terminology and financial data that only someone with many years experience in public accounting could understand. I did, however, find out that our town spends $35 million on education and has nearly $52 million of debt, but without context these number were nearly meaningless to me.

This became the seed that grew into ClearGov.

A year later, the team at ClearGov has crafted a platform that transforms publicly available finances from local governments into easy-to-understand infographics. Each metric is accompanied by a comparison benchmark powered by a sophisticated algorithm that benchmarks local governments by size of population and median home values within a given radius of the city or town. Currently covering California, Massachusetts and New York, ClearGov has over 2,000 profiles of local governments revenues, expenditures and debt.

Source: ClearGov
Source: ClearGov

An example of an infographic created by ClearGov.

It is our hope that this data can help citizens make more informed votes on upcoming ballots and government officials can leverage this data to make more informed budget decisions. We firmly believe that when open data is given context is can help data realize its full potential.

And, by the way, I did find the answers to my questions. My town’s debt is 7 percent higher than similar towns and it spends 14 percent more than similar towns on education.

Source: ClearGov
Source: ClearGov

My town’s debt is reasonable in comparison to similar towns in the area.

With this in mind, I voted “yes” as I didn’t think the additional debt to fund the new school was going to put the town out of reason. My vote was just one vote, but it was informed.

It will be interesting to see how more relatable will affect elections when many more voters are better informed through data with context.

About Chris Bullock

Chris Bullock is the founder and CEO of ClearGov Inc., a municipal financial reporting platform. Chris has over 12 years experience in data analytics and benchmarking. Most recently Chris co-founded Sky Analytics (acquired by Huron Consulting Group), a legal spend analytics and benchmarking platform that revolutionized the legal industry. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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