March 7, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
North Port, Fla. — a city covering 108 square miles with some 57,000 residents — is a mixed bedroom and retirement community at the south end of Sarasota County between Fort Myers and Tampa. It might, at first glance, seem an unlikely jurisdiction to be an IT leader, but North Port has, in a quiet way, become just that.
Four years ago, Brad Schuette (pronounced “Shoo-tee”) was hired as information and technology manager, and for the past two years, North Port has ranked in the top 10 of the Digital Cities Survey. Then in May 2011, City Manager Jonathan Lewis arrived, and brought with him an agenda of public trust and engagement. “He has a strong belief that public information should be public,” said Schuette, “and it should be easy to get to.” Lewis — who is also president-elect of the Florida City and County Management Association — wanted North Port’s government to be transparent.
A majority of the city’s public information requests involved financial information, so that became the focus of a new website, ViewNorthPort. All financial matters — including staff salaries — are available. A lot of work went into cleaning the data and making it understandable to the public.
The cleansing of the data was done by North Port’s Finance Group, which analyzed all processes that involved incoming or outgoing funds. The group made sure those processes facilitated the gathering of good data and that they made the data in the system clear enough to disseminate to the public. Financial codes for expenditures, receipts and related materials had to be converted from “‘financese’ to English,” said Schuette. “You can’t get away from using GASB 34 terms,” he explained, referring to a 1999 rule requiring state and local governments to publish the value of their infrastructure on an “accrual” accounting basis. “That’s why if you look at the site, there’s a glossary section.”
Brad Schuette, North Port, Fla., information and technology manager
Comprehension was especially important, he said, when users drill down into detailed specifics. “We have an advanced search capability in all the areas that allows you to narrow it down to categories and subcategories by department, specific dates and items of a certain value. So you can break the data down into the manageable piece that you want and then export it out in a variety of different formats,” Schuette explained.
The city already had completed consolidating data into an ERP system, had improved processes and taken other steps that enabled the transparency site to be up and running in about three months, using city staff.
The city went through many tests of specific reports to find holes in processes. During that time, Schuette said, they were developing the data warehouse and the extract programs so they could keep the data refreshed.
At first, said Schuette, the city considered a daily refresh of the site, but it was thought that corrections and updates might confuse users. Instead the city decided on a weekly refresh. Once a week, an automated process extracts data from North Port’s financial system databases, pulls it into a data warehouse. This SQL database is set externally from other systems so that there is no way to get through it and into live data, Schuette said. The extract data warehouse is what’s used to build reports.” Schuette said the site is running on SQL Express, using SQL Report Writer to generate the reports. The website was developed in Visual Basic, as a separate page, not part of the city’s content management system.
Schuette said he made a presentation at the Florida Government Information Systems Association Winter Conference with several other jurisdictions that have financial transparency initiatives. “One of them has their check registers available, another has put a variety of financial reports and canned reports that people can go in and run, to look at some data specifics,” he said. “Sarasota County has done a transparency site. There are a few, but it’s definitely a minority right now.” Schuette said North Port received a lot of attention at the conference — a gathering of government computer leaders and management from across the state.
Schuette said the investment was minimal — mostly city staff time — and the database was free. Making the data public was enough ROI in itself. As the next budget cycle is about to begin, Schuette thinks the site will help answer questions quickly and direct the public to exactly what they are looking for.
More granular data can increase criticism and nitpicking, but Schuette said it also leads to more educated questions. He said informal feedback so far from the public has been very positive. The site averages 500 visitors per week — 95 percent external users, and 5 percent internal. The biggest concern, he said, was putting salaries online. But during the site’s development, the local newspaper put salaries on its own website, so having them on the city site means the public doesn’t have to go to the media for the data and helps reassure the public that nothing is hidden.
What’s the key to a successful financial transparency initiative?
“We tried to be thorough in thinking about it, not just, ‘We’ve done our bit, we’ve thrown the information out there,’” Schuette said. “We really wanted it to be something they could use and would be clear and concise in a language that they could understand.”