Many state and local officials struggle to communicate the business of government to residents, particularly when presenting information about how taxpayers’ money is allocated and spent. Traditionally, financial information has been presented in forms accessible only to trained accountants — reams of information, which, though vital, have little meaning for the average person. In response, some states and local governments are adopting citizen-centric reports to more easily and effectively communicate financial information to residents.
This year, the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Government Accountants (AGA) surveyed the general public on the effectiveness of government fiscal reporting. A vast majority of the respondents, 89 percent, said that, as taxpayers, they are entitled to transparent financial management information, and 57 percent said that government has an obligation to provide it. They further indicated that government is failing to meet its financial management reporting needs, and that poor performance has created a problem of trust between residents and their governments. The survey showed that governments need new innovative means of communication to overcome those challenges.
The AGA’s Citizen-Centric Reporting Program is intended to foster innovative means of communication. The program is part of AGA’s “Advancing Government Accountability” campaign, which educates policymakers and the public on governmental transparency, and urges local and state officials to explain their financial workings to the public in clear terms. The Citizen-Centric Reporting Program is a practical element of the campaign, encouraging the use of snapshot reports of government finances to supplement traditional financial information.
Citizen-centric reports detail government finances in a visually appealing, clear and straightforward four-page document. The standard format shows community information — such as population figures, regional characteristics and government goals for the community — on the first page, and the second page presents a performance report on key missions and service. The third page details cost and revenue information, and the fourth looks forward to the year ahead.
In late June, South Carolina became the latest government body to issue a four-page snapshot of its finances. The report drew attention from the public and was welcomed by groups such as the South Carolina Policy Council, a local think-tank focused on advancing the principles of limited government and free enterprise.
Recently, the Department of the Interior became the first federal department to complete a citizen-centric report, and AGA officials expect the Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard to follow. All state and local governments can easily implement the standard reports to share their valuable financial information with residents.
The author is the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Association of Government Accountants.