“Transparency in government”… Merely buzzwords until they are put into action. And despite the push for more openness and greater accountability by the investment community, watchdog groups, and taxpayers, exemplary cases of transparency in city government are still the exception rather than the rule. 

But when a government administration takes that mission to heart, the results can be downright impressive. 

Following is a tale of two cities, on opposite sides of the country. One is known as the “Biggest Little City in the World.” The other is simply known as “the Big City.” But both Reno, Nevada and New York City are front-runners when it comes to financial transparency in city government.

Under the leadership of Reno City Manager Andrew Clinger, the City has made a strong commitment to be more open and transparent, according to Michele Anderson, Public Information Officer with the City of Reno.

It is one of Clinger’s stated goals to keep residents informed of what goes on in their local government, she says. As part of that mission, the City of Reno is the first local government in the State of Nevada to have an online checkbook database and online payroll information.

Unveiled about a year ago, Reno’s Online Checkbook is about as easy to use as… your own personal checkbook – and maybe even easier because it is so clean and well organized. Ledgers are organized by year, going back to fiscal year 2009-10, department, and sub-department. The online checkbook is also searchable by vendor.

The Online Checkbook is just the beginning. The Open Government dashboard includes an Online Payroll database of salary and benefits information; Green Energy and Wind Energy data and maps; a Business License searchable database; and Police and Fire Call information.

According to Reno City Manager Andrew Clinger, “We hope our open government commitment will help us better identify areas where we can be more transparent along with getting citizen feedback on what would be the most helpful for them. The City of Reno wants to hear from our citizens and encourage them to help us solve important problems together.”

About 2,700 miles to the east… New York City Comptroller John Liu’s Officer recently unveiled the latest version of its online checkbook, called CheckBook NYC 2.0. It is a “suite” of online transparency tools that not only includes spending and payroll tracking data (complete with data visualization tools), but also tracks spending on contracts with minority/women-owned businesses and provides information about the City’s pension funds.

The first generation of CheckBook NYC was launched in 2010, providing access to the City’s day-to-day checkbook, or spending activities. According to the website, since then, “Liu’s office, led by Deputy Comptroller Ari Hoffnung and Assistant Comptroller Michael Bott, has been exploring ways to improve the website.”

Clearly, Liu and his staff did their homework; to say that the results are “impressive” is akin to saying that New York City is “big.” The application is not only remarkable in its scope, but also in its ease of use, which was an intentional goal of the development team.

CheckBook NYC 2.0 “empowers and enlists the public to keep an eye on government spending, and thereby curtails wasteful and improper spending of the public’s money,” Comptroller Liu said at a recent press conference. “With out-of-control cost overruns and a growing public sense that tax dollars are not funding real priorities, this application could not have come sooner.”

Over the past decade, the financial transparency bar has been raised to new heights – as has the demand for accountability. At the same time, many local governments are taking a more cooperative/inclusive approach to solving their fiscal challenges, asking taxpayers to help be wardens of their own funds. A handful of other cities across the country already join Reno and New York City in providing online checkbooks and other transparency tools, but we have a feeling we’re seeing the very early stages of a trend that’s about to proliferate.