From Fiscal Friction to Fiscal Focus

October 14, 2019 by Kyle Hall

From Fiscal Friction to Fiscal Focus

Not too long ago, data was something governments filed away for annual reporting or grant requirements. Even then, the final results were often relegated to dusty bookshelves only to be seen by a small handful of people.

Today, the mindset is shifting to seeing — and using— data as a valuable business intelligence tool. Government leaders want data they can trust, analyze, and use to make evidence-based decisions.

In a recent Summit on Financial Leadership panel in New York City, I was joined by Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman and Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb, who shared how their organizations leveraged data to move from financial friction to fiscal focus.

Schnirman may refer to his office “as the fiscal umpire for the county, calling balls and strikes,” but the work of a comptroller comes down to more than that. It’s about building partnerships, sharing information and ideas, and continuing the mission of making government better.

The first step starts with deliberate culture changes.

It’s an issue many in government can appreciate. For example, Lamb brought up a time, right before he took office, where city leaders couldn’t agree on the real financial situation of the city.

In today’s modern government, financial transparency presents both challenge and opportunity. Chasing surface-level transparency just to be on-trend doesn’t move the needle in truly transformative ways. Robust financial transparency, however, is a powerful tool that can. Today, Pittsburgh’s team uses the controller’s data to run predictive analytics, to improve the procurement process, and to bolster public engagement.

“What we found is that while the political leadership may be arguing at some point at a higher level, staff are working together and using data that is now being provided to them for the first time in a new way,” Lamb says. “It has changed the relationship between my office and the city's finance department.”

For Schnirman, it’s been about moving away from a paper-based culture to a collaborative environment.

“Information has been siloed and sort of seen as the ‘coin of the realm’ that you hold close to your silo, and you don’t share it,” he says. “That’s now beginning to change.”

Earlier this year, Schnirman launched an advanced internal data-sharing platform, Socrata Connected Government Cloud, along with new public-facing apps to share details on payroll, budget, expenses, and other financial information in an easy-to-use format. Schnirman says they’re beginning to see the results of that effort.

“The conversation used to go, ‘Oh, you’re interested in that data or that fact? That’s something I’ll have to look up and get back to you,’” Schnirman says. “That’s the punt that gets you out of the hot seat.”

While there’s still more work to do inside of government, data is becoming a central piece of the discussion, Schnirman says.

“Discussions are becoming more fact-based,” Schnirman says. “It’s no longer just the story they want to tell, it’s the story illustrated by facts.”

With an advanced data platform, the facts aren’t owned by any one person or department. Insights are available to staff to have a discussion in real time as questions arise. That’s a major shift for many organizations.

The way to measure success is not just in the feedback that organizations are getting, or in the public trust that’s restored. By creating understanding and buy-in with financial transparency, governments can create a more fact-based discussion in their ecosystems.

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