Connecting state and local government leaders
Efforts by Los Angeles' controller to open up city fiscal data took on an added dimension when Covid-19 hit.
Los Angeles Controller Ron Galperin says that by the time he arrived on the job as the city's chief taxpayer watchdog he'd developed something of an obsession with where L.A.'s revenues came from and how they were being spent.
Wanting to understand why the city at times didn't have the money for certain priorities was one factor driving this interest, explained Galperin, who worked as an attorney, small business owner and journalist before being elected to his post in 2013. "I ran for controller because I believed that we had to run our city much more effectively and that data was a key," he said during a recent virtual conference held by the National League of Cities.
One of his priorities since taking office has been opening up the city's financial data so that it's available online for residents and city staff and officials to easily access and scrutinize.
This work took on a new dimension as Los Angeles, a city of nearly 4 million residents, began spending millions of dollars responding to the coronavirus over the past two years and as it is in line to receive a total of nearly $2 billion in direct, federal pandemic aid.
"Data in and of itself does not transform government but I believe that it is a necessary prerequisite, and I also see the openness that we have sought to achieve as critical as well," he said. "What I wanted to do was to create dashboards that tracked the Covid-related spending and the tremendous influx of federal dollars."
The city's Covid-19 spending tracker as of late November was showing about $1.1 billion in total expenses, including costs like staffing, overtime and supplies. Those inclined to do so can dig down deeper in the numbers, looking at costs for departments, programs and information on specific appropriations.
"It was very important for me to put it all out there for everybody to see," Galperin said.
He explained that it's not just curious residents who turn to the tools his office has created, but also city council members and their staff, along with the mayor's office. He said that these offerings have cut down on public records requests, by making information about the city's financial affairs more readily accessible.
While Los Angeles is not the only local government to have created online dashboards to track Covid dollars and other spending, the work by Galperin's office is notable given the city's size and the amount of federal aid it is receiving. Los Angeles is among the top city recipients under the state and local direct aid program in the American Rescue Plan Act, with about $1.2 billion headed its way. That's in addition to nearly $700 million in earlier CARES Act funding.
There's a lot of federal money set to gush towards the state and local level under ARPA, the infrastructure bill and possibly Democrats' massive spending package if it clears Congress. So, it's perhaps a good time for cities, and other local governments and states, to consider how much light they shed on their spending and if residents have a straightforward option to access and understand this information.
One benefit with getting this right is that it can help to build trust with residents that money is being spent wisely. An added upside is that it gives more people and groups an opportunity to put eyes on the numbers and look for things that may seem off.
"It is impossible to audit everything. It is impossible to delve into and research absolutely every expenditure," Galperin said.
But he noted that Los Angeles has a very active community of advocates on different issues who help to fill in the gaps here. "Believe me, they're watching. And that's fine by me. They are participating in being watchdogs," he said, "and hopefully adding their perspective and helping to move us in a better direction."
Galperin's office has also taken to maintaining an equity index, which offers users insights into how variables like rent burdens, poverty and pollution vary across different parts of the city. Galperin described this as a very useful tool to help guide decision making in city government.
"The data is not the end in itself," he added. "It to me is merely a means to a much greater end, which is: How do we make people's lives better? How do we use the resources that we have well?"
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.