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Open Data Portals for Washington Local Government Finance Data

March 8, 2015  by  Mike Bailey
Category:  Public Participation

Open Data Portals for Washington Local Government Finance Data

There is a lot of attention these days on the transparency of governmental spending. That is as it should be.  As I’ve said before in this column, this is “other people’s money” and we in government have an important responsibility to spend it wisely.  The community that contributes these funds (both voluntarily through fees and involuntarily through taxes) has the right to know how it is being spent and if it is being spent efficiently.  This has been a sort of “holy grail” over the years and decades.  The proverbial comparison has always been the “bottom line” in business (net income or return on equity).  While government doesn’t have a traditional “bottom line,” we have a variety of data that serve as a substitute.  Getting at this “government bottom line” type data efficiently is the topic of this month’s column.

Local Government Financial Reporting System (LGFRS)

The Washington State Auditor (SAO) created the Budgeting, Accounting and Reporting System (BARS) many decades ago to create a consistent basis of comparison among local government finances.  As the story was told to me, the original audience was intended to be the state legislature.  They were seeking a way to understand the real trends and experiences in local government finances and had only anecdotes to work with.  However BARS was only a way to standardize the accounting.  The reporting system was still not providing consistent information.  As a result, the SAO created the Local Government Financial Reporting System (LGFRS).  This on-line system provides the financial data for revenues and expenditures for most types of local governments all the way back to the year 2000.  As a website, it includes a variety of easy ways to sort through and select the types of data and types of comparisons that might be helpful in your research.

For example, you might be noticing that certain trends are showing up in your utility tax revenues.  It seems that they have been declining lately even when your community is growing.  Is that a result of a compliance problem in your city, or is this a bigger trend.  Here are the steps to get this analysis quickly and easily.

  1. By opening the report menu you can first select what type of local government you want to compare (we will select city / town).  Pressing “next” at the bottom of the page takes you to the second menu choice (you can also navigate using the menu numbers at the top - as you get more comfortable with the system this allows you to jump right to where you want to change a selection). 
  2. Select the type of report you are seeking.  Here there are four choices pre-designed (while this may appear limiting, it precludes you from having to design the report).  I almost always choose “category with years across.”
  3. Pressing “next” takes you to an option to select your governmental comparisons.  You can select all governments (which will be limited to the type of government you chose in number 1 above).  You have a few other filtering choices here as well such as between a population range, within certain counties and other choices.  You can also select specific governments and create your own comparable data set. I’m going to choose King county.
  4. “Next” takes you to the accounts that you want to compare.  In our example we want to scroll down to “business taxes” (utility taxes are a type of business taxes and we can specifically see the utility tax categories later).  At the bottom of the page we also get to select which fund types we want included in our report as well.  Be careful here as this is where there is still some differences in the ways that data is being reported.  For example, if in your city you directly record utility taxes in a special revenue fund for a specific purpose (or a capital fund to pay for capital improvements) you will need to include these fund types in your report.  I typically select all “governmental fund” types (general, special revenue, debt, capital projects) just to be safe.  You can select multiple fund types by holding down the “Ctrl” key as you click on them.
  5. “Next” takes you to which years to include in your data.  Since we are looking for trends in our report, we will select the most recent 10 years.  You can also select specific years (using the “Ctrl” click method described above).  Here you can have the report round to dollars, thousands or millions (actually a nice feature to clean up the report); show sub-totals (the default “on” setting is best); and show the BARS codes on the report (the default “off” setting generally works best).  You are now ready to click “View Report.”
  6. You now get the report you have been creating.  However, you are not quite done yet.  Here is a screen shot of the report:

Remember that we selected business taxes. So we have all business taxes while we only wanted utility taxes.You can see the “B&O Taxes on Utilities” account.This is the data point we are seeking.You can also see a “scroll bar” at the bottom of the report.This is how we see the other years we selected – off to the right. Scrolling over we see that the peak of the utility tax revenue was in 2009 and it does actually drop in subsequent years. So we’ve got our answer!

You can see there are lots of other choices for how to analyze the data (by dollars, by population, export to pdf or excel, etc.). Follow these steps to use the LGFRS to answer your other questions as well.If you are like me, you will be coming back here a lot. One last note – you see that “Gambling Excise Tax” is highlighted; this means you can drill down into more detail.This is good to keep in mind as you select accounts.You can always drill down to detail.

Open Data Portals

A relatively new transparency tool is known as an open data portal (typically “” – for example: ).  These are springing up a lot lately as it has become easier to make native data available in a data set type format using a variety of tools.  In fact, you now see data sets produced by AWC ( and Governing Magazine ( and many local governments.  The “Local Ballot Measure Database” on MRSC’s website is a type of data portal as well.
In Redmond, we have chosen to make our “checkbook” available through the data portal.  Once you open our website, you choose which data set you want to explore.  Then the website enables a variety of analysis approaches through filters, pre-designed formats, etc.  We have our check register and our purchasing card transactions both available – in separate data bases only because it is easier for us.  When we showed this to our city council, they really liked the idea and asked us to simply call it our “checkbook”.  You can also get to this data from our traditional website (under “government/finances and budget/financial reports” and select “City ‘Checkbook’ ”).

In addition, we just added a specialized dataset related to the budget.  City budgets are often technical and difficult to understand.  As a result we worked with the website host (Socrata) to develop a dataset that provides budget information in a visual form (  Take a look and play with the drill through into the city priorities (the way we organize our budget) or capital projects (either by location in the map or by priority).  You can retain the visual view, or select the data view icon () to switch to a traditional row and column data format.

Other Data

We have focused our discussion on financial transparency.  In government, we spend money to generate certain community results (such as better commutes, higher personal safety, a certain sense of community).  These are more difficult to describe from a data perspective, but some are making progress.  The SAO’s Local Government Performance Center (LGPC) is working hard on making this type of data easier to capture, of a better quality and more accessible to the public.  I’ve written about the LGPC in the past and they are still hard at work helping us in local government do a better job by “providing non-audit services and resources to help local governments deliver better results” (their mission statement).  To see what progress is being made, look at the many examples in their “center resources” tool (select “managing and improving performance” from the menu).

Constantly improving technology along with the commitment of many individuals and teams has resulted in meaningful progress in local government accountability.  Here we have covered just a few of the innovations and improvements.  The important responsibility that comes with spending “other people’s money” will continue to drive us to keep working to be more transparent and generate better results for the communities we serve.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Mike Bailey

Mike served as a Finance Consultant for MRSC for several years before retiring in 2020.

Mike writes about local government financial management, local government budgeting, financial leadership, and strategic planning processes.



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