Why We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Open Data

Los Angeles City Hall

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Publishing government data can be great for citizens and innovative companies. But government operations can also benefit from open data’s revolutionary power.

Open data and data-driven government are changing the way government works for people all over the world. But as Ron Galperin, Controller for the City of Los Angeles, points out in the following guest article, government agencies will miss out on the true potential of open data if they see themselves merely as publishers—instead of key consumers of public data.

LOS ANGELES — In the last few years, we’ve all heard how open data is changing the way government and constituents interact. Many elected officials have created open data portals like Los Angeles’ ControlPanel LA, which my office launched in October 2013.

Since that time, however, I have noticed something of a paradox: Most of the focus on the open data revolution has centered on citizen access to information—or on the potential for private companies to utilize and monetize this data. Don’t get me wrong: I believe wholeheartedly that open data empowers citizens and improves the democratic process. Likewise, innovative companies like Zillow and SiteCompli are developing great products using open data that benefit consumers and businesses alike.

But do you know who else can derive extraordinary value from government data? Government itself.

Before I explain, let me offer a little background on my office and its job functions. The Controller’s office in the City of Los Angeles is responsible for payroll processing, financial reporting, general accounting, and for auditing the performance and financials of all City departments. This means that we set accounting policy citywide, manage two enterprise financial systems, and issue recommendations to make all aspects of our government operations more efficient.

I came into office after a career in the private sector, which perhaps gave me a different perspective on how our operations could be managed. One of the first things I noticed was that department heads and managers worked in silos and didn’t have access to one another’s data. Managers in the Fire Department couldn’t see the Police Department’s payroll information. Managers in Building and Safety had limited insight into the operations of the Planning Department or the Housing Department. Simply put, basic operational data was not readily available across departments.

This sort of “siloing” prevents department heads and City leaders from gaining a holistic vision of the entire City’s operations and from sharing wisdom with one another, which in turn means they’re not learning from one another. But it also means they may be deprived of the most basic information they need to do their jobs effectively.

Here’s a real-life example of what I’m describing. One of my office’s core functions is to open and close “special funds”—accounts which have dedicated revenue sources and, quite often, specific rules about how money in the funds can be spent.

Griffith Observatory with downtown Los Angeles behind it. (Sean Pavone / Shutterstock.com)

The purpose of and revenue sources for the City’s special funds truly run the gamut. The Transportation Grants Fund, for example, receives more than $20 million annually from federal, state, and county agencies for a variety of transportation projects. Meanwhile, the Coral Tree Trimming Trust Fund is earmarked solely for the purpose of trimming coral trees on one street on the Westside of Los Angeles. (For what it’s worth, coral trees, which are native to Africa, are actually the official tree of Los Angeles. The next time you visit L.A., take a look—they’re quite beautiful.)

By policy, L.A. City departments are responsible for adhering to special fund rules. More often than not, only a few individuals who regularly work with the fund have any idea what the rules might be. In 2008 and 2009, many of the most senior analysts left the City during devastating rounds of recession-related layoffs and early retirements. This created a huge void in the City’s ability to properly and effectively oversee its finances.

My office had to turn to backup binders with information about special funds records. But that simply makes no sense in today’s world. When I came into office, modernizing special funds and ensuring the billions of dollars held therein were effectively managed was an operational challenge I wanted to tackle right away.

But instead of adding more paper or more bureaucracy, I decided the solution was open data.

Today, every one of the City’s 936 special funds is listed on ControlPanel LA. Anyone with an Internet connection can see, with a few mouse clicks, where each fund’s revenues come from, how the money can be spent, and, perhaps most important, who’s responsible for overseeing each fund.

This information has proven important for L.A.’s residents and businesses. I often demo our open data site for community members and electeds alike, and the response is the same: people are inspired and excited by the possibilities open data presents. They also start to see their government as an invigorating instrument for innovation. Likewise, they find the data useful. One community group, looking to use money in a special fund to enhance a public golf course, was able to contact the fund’s administrator directly.

Just as important, the information is now available to City staff and management. A recent plan to end neighborhood blight relied on special fund data on ControlPanel LA to identify money to purchase thousands of trash cans for LA’s streets. Likewise, last year a councilmember using the data discovered money languishing in a fund that he was able to use to update his district’s community zoning plan.

Of course, data in and of itself is not wisdom and sometime it’s not even knowledge. But it is a prerequisite to achieving an understanding of one’s operations. So is hiring the right kind of people, and I, for one, hope the next generation of public employees will be committed to using data to make their work more efficient and innovative.

As for governments, they need to start thinking of themselves not just as data publishers, but as data consumers. Metrics consistently show that half of the traffic to most open data portals comes from internal users—employees and managers with the expertise to analyze data and use it to increase productivity.

We should embrace this. Governments spend countless hours and billions of dollars figuring out how to share data between agencies and departments—even between employees sitting in adjacent cubicles.

Here in the Controller’s office in Los Angeles, we are committed to making our operations “transparent by default.” That means we don’t think of public data as separate from operational data. And for very little additional cost, we are breaking down walls between managers and departments, opening up conduits for sharing information and learning. And that, as much as any product or service, is the revolutionary power of open data.

Ron Galperin is Controller for the City of Los Angeles.

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