This was a birthday present for me, though, late by one day — so maybe it was intended for Beyonce. Either way, on September 4, the City of Atlanta launched Open Checkbook, an online portal that catalogues city expenditures and allows the public to view, sort and download that data.
If you’re an entrepreneur like me, this is a great opportunity to look at a major financial statement without accompanying anxiety (when you see an unnecessary Taco Bell purchase after One MusicFest, just as a hypothetical example).
This is a big step forward for Atlanta and should be applauded. In 2017, in the “spirit of transparency” inspired by a federal investigation, Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration filled an old Atlanta City Council chamber with 1.47 million pages of documents, a record for number of printed pages by a municipality and city-induced paper cuts (data still pending on the latter).
The Open Checkbook was announced as a part of Mayor Lance Bottoms’ strategy to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” This metaphor, borrowed from a past president who once finished a speech with a bullet still lodged in his chest, shows progress in how the city views the power of data as a preemptive tool for future action.
Open data is a catalyst for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of government. When we can visualize data around spending, we can find key places to cut costs. There are also opportunities for consolidated services across departments; the saved money could help capitalize underfunded priorities. There’s also spending that is just an irresponsible use of public dollars.
It could be easy to use something like Open Checkbook as a “got-cha” moment to call out people or departments. For example, City Council paid $338.05 to a company called HoneyBaked, Inc. (which is only registered to a company that sells hams) with the description of “website transparency training.” Either HoneyBaked is hosting some new pork/website collaborations, or someone was going H.A.M. and accidentally mislabeled this expense.
While the tool still has some kinks to work out and some description fields to fill in (because HoneyBaked could really be a web training company), its look at local government spending helps us better understand and assess the fiscal responsibility of leadership across departments. That spending history should factor into how budgets are allocated in the future, and irresponsible spending should have consequences.
A tool for equity
The primary value of this platform, however, is not for the government micromanager. This tool’s real potential — and stated intention — is to make Atlanta smarter and fairer in our financial decision-making.
If you’re a small business in Atlanta, you should find out what the city is paying for your services. Calling all caterers, t-shirt makers, printers! Diversifying the companies that serve our city is an opportunity to help the small businesses that are the backbone of our city.
For example, thanks to Open Checkbook, I know that the Department of Public Works loves Zaxby’s, while the Department of Parks and Recreation is on team Chick-Fil-A. Now, how can we also get an agency to champion the food of local restauranteurs?
City employees often have to work only with vendors “in the system,” so we must examine how to take the extra legislative step of procurement reform, making it easier for businesses to navigate the complex paperwork and become competitive vendors for the city.
Now, what’s next?
The next phase for Atlanta is to complement spending data with outcome data, just like we see in Chicago, Seattle and Austin, all of which have had open data portals for years. Outcome data helps contextualize the spending numbers.
For example, Open Checkbook tells me about WorkSource Atlanta (formerly “Atlanta Workforce Development Agency”) is there is money that was regranted to universities and an almost $30,000 expense toward a “Mayor’s Cup.” I should be able to couple information about this agency’s $1.57M budget with data on how many residents “attain sustainable employment,” per the agency’s mission.
When we better understand the effectiveness of an agency or of public investments, we can target spending toward efforts that yield positive results. We can also reevaluate and redesign interventions that clearly are not working.
Data is often imperfect, and there needs to be strict mandates and oversight around quality, contextualization and frequency of sharing, but tools like Open Checkbook bring an element of objectivity to otherwise subjective and polarizing conversations on the future of our city. When governments put information back into the hands of people, its an exercise of power balancing and opens doors for rebuilding trust.
Open Checkbook allows us to have a starting place for the conversation around what we’ve done and where we’re going. At the rate Atlanta is growing (the city’s population is projected to double by 2040), public investments have the opportunity to grow our local economy — but also run the risk of widening our already-high inequality gaps. Public information is owned by people, and access to it is a right.
Rohit Malhotra is founder and Executive Director of the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta.