Your tax dollars at work? ClearGov makes municipalities’ financials transparent and accessible

SUMMARY:

Want to know how your state or local municipality is spending your tax dollars?  Want to know how it ranks among similar cities.  ClearGov wants to help you easily find that information.

transparencyChris Bullock went online one evening in 2015 in search of financial figures related to a vote to build a new elementary school in his hometown of Hopkinton, MA. Like many other citizens who go looking for information on how their local communities are spending their tax dollars, he quickly discovered that the town’s website was not helpful. There was a 230-page downloadable PDF but the material he was looking for was buried and hard to find. He looked at other municipal sites and discovered more of the same.

About halfway into them I would find the financial statements, but they used unfamiliar terminology, had complex transfers between funds and generally lacked any context to the numbers. For example, seeing that a municipality spends $60 million on education is nothing more than looking at a large number without context. What people want to see is how much of their money goes towards things like education and are the tax dollars being spent efficiently compared to other cities and towns. In other words, I could see a tremendous need for clarifying government data and putting it into perspective.

Bullock, a data analytics pro and serial entrepreneur who previously had founded a legal-focused analytics startup after working at the Nasdaq Stock Market, knew what he had to do. His next startup was ClearGov, a municipal transparency and benchmarking enterprise SaaS platform that transforms complex and confusing municipal financial reports into easy-­to-­understand infographics that benchmark cities’ and towns’ performance against statistical peers.

Since its launch, ClearGov has gathered financial detail on nearly every city, town and village across the United States to create what it says is the world’s most comprehensive municipal financial database, including financial performance rankings of over 36,000 municipalities. The ClearGov Insights database now includes over $2.5 trillion in government spending across hundreds of budget categories.

The company has also introduced state government fiscal analyses, which offers per capita rankings for hundreds of categories including taxes, total revenue and spending on education,  public safety and employee benefits among other categories. The rankings, which can be filtered by county and population, also provide insight into demographic categories such as population growth, median home value and household income.  ClearGov’s new state budget analyses not only provide taxpayers with a straightforward view of where states derive funding and spend tax dollars, but also benchmarks every budget category against contiguous states.

What’s the business model?

ClearGov created financial transparency pages on its website for every town in Massachusetts and has now expanded into several other states that are free to the public.

It sells expanded, more granular data platforms to the municipalities for an annual fee. So far, nearly 100 cities over six states have signed on as paying customers.

The platforms are linked or embedded in their municipal websites to provide a user-friendly consumer interface for local government transparency and allow the local municipalities to add more recent and detailed financials to the site along with commentary to better tell the story behind the figures, share the metrics that drive budgetary decisions and access tools to benchmark their municipal budget against the state and their statistical peers.

In April, the business launched its new line of stat dashboards in Massachusetts, where, following its same business strategy for cities, it pulled data from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to set up more than 400 school district portals. Now, school districts have the option to “claim” their portals and pay for additional data, control of the content, and a back-office feature for generating statistics, charts and graphs.

So far, Bullock said, the company has signed on 20 school districts to claim their portals. Among the upgrades ClearGov offers are checkbook-level expenditure data, student demographics, per pupil spending, teacher salary ranking  and more detailed testing performance.  The algorithm the company uses to determine similar districts takes into account student count, household income and proximity.

The company’s seed round was led in March 2017 by Kepha Partners and included MassVentures, as well as a host of angel investors. Said Bryan Burdick, President and Co-Founder of ClearGov:

Governments across the country have made tremendous efforts to make data more open and transparent. ClearGov is now taking this open data the next mile by making it accessible to the masses and delivering actionable insights to local government leaders.

My take

There is no shortage of software vendors looking to grab a piece of the growing market for smarter, more useful and transparent tools to facilitate better communications between citizens and their governments at all levels. ClearGov appears to be in the right place at the right time with some unique capabilities. Chief among these is the ability for users to benchmark their municipality’s financial performance against similar cities across the country through a proprietary national database that ClearGov has painstakingly assembled.  That provides powerful context to what otherwise would be meaningless numbers.

There are solutions with more bells-and-whistles but ClearGov’s user interface modeled on infographics is easier to digest for the average citizen. Too many options can be confusing.

And, as Bullock explains, the company’s inclusive marketing strategy works:

From a more holistic standpoint, our whole market approach is unique. ClearGov.com is a resource for taxpayers. Towns have a presence on ClearGov even without their participation, so towns are drawn to want to manage their presence.

ClearGov ranked number 7 on the latest Haverford Choice awards from ELGL’s top 50 companies working with local governments. The company was also recently named by the editors of Government Technology magazine to the GovTech100 comprised of 100 government-­focused companies with innovative or disruptive offerings. Impressive.

Image credit - via joincube

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