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Mayor Menino to emphasize greater Gov’t transparency

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced Thursday  that Boston’s financial records have become more open to residents since the city received a

“D-” grade from Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group in spending transparency. Deirdre Cummings, legislative director for MASSPIRG, said city financial information for the public has been too limited.

“The area that was lacking and what we focused our review on was transparency of city spending, really down to the checkbook level,” she said. “So you can find posted up there [on the City of Boston website] just the regular budget, but what you can’t find is an easy-to-use online checkbook where you can find the details regarding how the city is spending the taxpayers dollars.”

Out of 30 cities evaluated in the MASSPIRG report, three received an “A,” grade. These cities are New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, Cummings said.

To combat its grade, the city of Boston has created an open government portal to improve engagement across city government and create a connection between residents and their government.

The portal allows Boston residents to see civic data, use interactive maps and review city performance, according to Menino’s press release.

“The City of Boston is committed to an open government strategy,” Menino said in a press release. “For us, it’s all about deepening the connection between residents and government. That’s why we launched our open government portal in 2012 and continue our work to build out the platform.”

The open government portal was launched in October 2012, but the mayor is announcing it now as it is more operational, said Curt Savoie, the principal data scientist for Boston’s innovation and technology department.

“While it was launched in October, we haven’t had a lot of data sets on it so we’ve been adding data to it all along,” Savoie said.  “In the beginning we didn’t feel it was time to announce it, because people wouldn’t really see anything on the site. Behind the scenes we’ve been working to make it sustainable and figuring out what data people actually want.”

Cummings said transparency in government is important for the efficiency of a city.

“Transparency of city spending is important as it make government more efficient,” Cummings said. “It promotes accountability, and it allows the public to see and participate and understand city services, and how the city is investing their tax dollars.”

Bill Oates, chief information officer for the city, said transparency is the first of many goals for the new portal.

“The portal will also be used for developers and those in academia that can benefit from this information,” Oates said. “We will be able to work together on projects like urban planning, and transportation issues. We want to streamline the process for people to get information that they want, so that we can create more connections

with residents.”

Meredith Weenick, Boston’s chief financial officer, said changes needed to be made to accommodate citizen access to data.

“The City recognizes the need to make financial data available to the public. Now that we have upgraded our financial system, the time is right to increase the amount of available data,” se said. The financial system was updated, allowing the project to go ahead,

Savoie said.
“For about a year, our software system experienced a fairly
significant overhaul,” Savoie said. “It was pretty much a software
update of our entire financial system, and now that it is done, our
resources are more freed up to explore some of the things in this
portal project.”
In its report, MASSPIRG makes recommendations to improve Boston’s
grade, mainly focusing on the importance of checkbook-level detail.
“You want to see who gets paid, how much they get paid and for what,”
Cummings said, detailing what ‘checkbook-level’ means.  “Then, in
addition to that we also look to see, ‘could the public access the
contracts?’ Because often cities contract with agencies or when they
make a purchase it is in a contract, and then the other piece of
spending that is very important is spending done in the form of tax
breaks.”

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