This bill, which Sen. Correa plans to reintroduce in the new session, and others with a similar goal of greater government transparency – thank you, city of Bell – are a good first step. However, we need to encourage a proactive posture on government spending. We need a data archive – which Brandman University would be interested in hosting and managing – to make useful comparisons on a range of performance measures, not just salaries.
Such data bases are commonplace in private industry, higher education, even sports. For example, each year many certified public accounting firms fill out a “Managing an Accounting Practice” survey. The survey is sponsored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
Similar surveys are conducted for colleges and universities by organizations such as U.S. News and World Report. These rankings are used by universities to measure their performance across time and to compare themselves with other schools. This is an important management tool for college administrators and their boards of trustees. The reports also provide consumers – students and parents – with genuinely helpful information.
The public sector does not embrace these performance measuring efforts. Government agencies dislike being compared. For county treasurers, for example, the idea of having their monthly or annual investment yields compared sends shivers up their spines. However, if they compiled a listing of yields by county and provided the weighted average maturity and portfolio compositions, like the private sector does monthly, the public would come closer to having a fair and objective analysis of each county’s investment strategies.
Once you have good, comparable data, then voters, elected officials and city staff can make more informed decisions. If the data reveals that a city with a population of 50,000 should be paying its the city manager approximately $200,000 per year, then a city with a population of less than 40,000 shouldn’t be paying nearly an $800,000 annual salary, for example. A city’s oversight board, its elected council, should be able to remedy such a large aberration in a quick and decisive manner. This information would also be useful in hiring negotiations.
Fears of being an outlier may surface among governmental entities. That is why a “notes” section should be included in all reports, to explain the reasons why, for example, a city manager is paid considerably above the average for similar cities. These notes could go a long way toward maintaining and/or restoring citizen trust.
Of course, government agencies differ from universities and certified public accounting firms. This is due to differing sizes, budget issues, a unionized workforce and public expectations. The basic data on a given municipality can be gleaned from its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. A survey of other municipalities would collect more data, and comparable matrixes could be developed in a reader-friendly manner.
In this era of information technology, it is time to assemble the data and utilize it in order to make better management decisions on behalf of taxpayers. Transparency, comparable data and financial surveys should be embraced by the public sector. A proactive posture on public finances will save everyone the embarrassment that some of our neighbors are enduring.
Published with permission of Fred Smoller. Originally published by the O.C. Register.