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Government Spending at Taxpayers’ Fingertips

Case Study
Checkbook NYC 2.0 provides unprecedented access to track how the government of New York City spends its $70 billion annual budget.

Client Overview
The New York City Comptroller, an independently elected official, is the Chief Financial Officer of the City of New York. The mission of the Office is to ensure the financial health of New York City by advising the Mayor, the City Council, and the public of the City’s financial condition. The New York City Comptroller’s Office collaborated with REI Systems (REI) to develop Checkbook NYC--the best financial transparency website for governments in the country.

New York City’s path to top-flight transparency began after the City’s near-bankruptcy in 1975. To avoid similar crises in the future, the City implemented a centralized accounting system for its 100+ agencies. Nearly four decades later, in July 2010, using data from its centralized accounting system, New York City introduced a beta version of Checkbook NYC. Checkbook posted online all City expenditures and was automatically updated on a daily basis. While feedback on Checkbook NYC was overwhelmingly positive, the City was looking to build on its initial success and expand beyond large data sets displayed in a tabular format. Simply stated, the City needed a solution that would make its vast amount of financial information easier for taxpayers to understand. The competitive Big Apple spirit led to another ambitious challenge: making New York the most fiscally transparent City in the United States.

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The New York City Comptroller’s Office selected REI to help develop Checkbook NYC 2.0 because the company had a strong track-record of developing government transparency websites, including USA Spending and IT Dashboard. Following months of work and an investment that exceeded $2 million, Checkbook NYC 2.0 was launched in January 2013. The new Checkbook NYC 2.0 website uses an intuitive dashboard layout that combines graphs and user-friendly tables with up-to-date information on New York City’s spending, contracts, and payroll. Checkbook NYC 2.0 is built in Drupal, an open-source platform. The website’s data warehouse, which is updated daily, contains more than 50 million financial transactions and is growing at a rate of approximately two million transactions per month.

A comprehensive national study, conducted by the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), titled “Transparency in City Spending: Rating the Availability of Online Government Data in America’s Largest Cities,” ranked New York City’s Checkbook NYC transparency website in the top spot out of 30 cities. “In the four years we’ve published evaluations of government-spending transparency, we haven’t seen any site with this much capacity to follow the tax dollars. I doubt any Fortune 500 company keeps track of its own spending as comprehensively, much less as openly, as New York City. We look forward to future improvements in disclosing economic-development subsidies and the full text of contracts.” – Phineas Baxandall, Ph.D., Senior Analyst and Program Director for Tax and Budget Policy at U.S. PIRG

Next Step: Open Source
Checkbook NYC is an open source technology. New York City welcomes other state and local governments who are evaluating and deploying Checkbook – and welcomes their private-sector partners in those deployments – to join in maintaining and developing Checkbook NYC as a multi-stakeholder open source project.

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