Technology eases access to Town Hall

As Ashland officials are working to balance their budget for next year, they’re also working on making sure that citizens have open access to the town’s books in the digital age.

Director of Finance and Deputy Town Manager Joshua Farrar is currently fine-tuning the town’s “OpenGov” online platform. When completed, the portal will display, visually, exactly how the town is spending local tax dollars.

swlogo2The software color-codes both expenditures and revenues, by departments or actual lines within a departmental budget, and can break them down into graphs to display, visually, the town’s inner financial workings.

The town has uploaded “actual” budgets going back several years, which contain the final, audited numbers. OpenGov also allows the town to update its current budget on a monthly basis to keep tabs on spending during an ongoing fiscal year.

Farrar said he came across the software at a city manager’s conference. He had been contemplating implementing a similar tool and was drawn to OpenGov’s accessibility.

“I’m a spreadsheet guy, so I’ll do spreadsheets all day and understand it. I know there are a lot of people out there – that’s not how they learn, that’s now how they see things,” Farrar said. “When I saw them giving demos of this, I thought for the non-spreadsheet people, that might be really, really helpful.”

Farrar reached out to OpenGov for a demo and has since sent them five years of financial data. He’s currently working to make sure the figures are displayed correctly

“All the numbers are there, they’re just splitting them up wrong,” Farrar said.

After it’s fine-tuned, the data will be featured on the town’s website. Interested parties can download figures or even share them on social media.

Farrar said the town wants citizens to be engaged, but understand that it’s difficult for most people to balance careers and family while also remaining involved civically. This tool gives citizens an easily accessible snapshot of Ashland’s inner workings, which will hopefully allow them to become better involved with their local government.

“We want people to tell us what they think, what they want, and part of that is understanding what we do,” Farrar said. “I understand that budgets and finance aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but hopefully, this might give someone who’s not into that a picture of how things are going for us.”

Farrar continues to work on getting the data straight and hopes OpenGov will be up and running this spring.

In a related endeavor, the town is in the midst of implementing another software called “Granicus,” which will live-stream town meetings online and back them up as a reference tool. Ashland joins Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico as localities in the greater-Richmond region using the software. Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate also use Granicus to capture and archive their proceedings.

Once implemented, the video portal will be featured under the “agendas and minutes” page on the town’s website.

Town meetings are currently broadcast on channel 17 for Comcast subscribers. Having meetings stream online helps provide access to citizens who may not have television or use a service other than Comcast.

“This is an opportunity to get it out to more people,” Farrar said.

And, because it’s an archiving tool as well as a live stream, the public can pull up old meetings to view exactly how their local government acted on any given issue.  It’s also a time-saver. The software enables users to click on an agenda item, which takes them immediately to the time in the video when town officials are taking up that issue.

“Hopefully, it allows people to have access to the information they want rather than sitting through a whole meeting,” Farrar said.

Farrar said the town had known about Granicus for a number of years, but it took a while to make it a reality. The town’s first “live” test of the Granicus software occurred during Tuesday night’s town council meeting.

“I’m proud of the town leading the way in being as transparent as possible with our citizens,” said Councilman James Foley.

The hope with this technology, as it was with OpenGov, is to help citizens become more engaged with local government.

“The only time people come out [to meetings] is when something controversial is going on,” Farrar said. “I understand that not everybody’s going to get hyped up about every issue that’s out there, but hopefully this is an opportunity for those who miss something, they can go back and watch it, they can find exactly what was said rather than hearing it thirdhand from people in the street.”

Posted on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 10:21 am