Governments aren’t typical customers for the buzzy start-ups backed by Andreessen Horowitz, whose portfolio includes social media sites Facebook and Twitter, ride-sharing service Lyft and lodging rental service Airbnb.
But last year, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm led a $15 million investment round for OpenGov, a start-up selling software to local governments to make financial records accessible to the public.
Usually for fees between $5,000 to $10,000 a year, governments grant OpenGov access to their financial ledgers, which are funneled into searchable charts updated at regular intervals, determined by the jurisdiction. Viewers can examine spending by department — for instance, OpenGov shows the city of Los Angeles’s police budget for 2013-14 was roughly $1.3 billion, with almost $683 million dedicated toward police patrol services and $24 million to technology.
With 43 employees, the Mountain View, Calif., company is led by founder and chief executive Zac Bookman, a University of Maryland graduate who grew up in Cabin John. Founded in 2012, OpenGov’s current customers include Palo Alto, Calif.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Marin County, Calif.; New Haven, Conn.; the California city of Dublin, and the California State Lands Commission — about 250 separate governments and agencies in total.
OpenGov is attempting to capitalize on growing pressure for financial transparency, coinciding with a federal “open data” movement encouraging governments to share more information with the public. President Obama’s 2013 executive order, called the “Open Data Policy,” required agencies to collect information “in a way that supports downstream information processing and dissemination activities.”
A 2013 report from the advocacy-minded U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 17 of the top 30 most populous U.S. cities had open, searchable financial platforms that showed a checkbook level of detail. A subsequent report found that in 2014, for the first time, every state had some version of a financial transparency Web site — though in 2015, only 41 states have budget transparency around one or more economic development programs or subsidies, according to PIRG.
“Increasingly, people are looking to be able to find information online, and the expectation is that information about government processes should also be readily available,” Emily Shaw, policy analyst for government transparency advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation, said in an interview. “Financial data is one of the more popular requests . . . because people are very interested in knowing how their tax dollars are being spent.”
Other tech companies are taking advantage of the trend. Montgomery County, Md., which unveiled its searchable database dataMontgomery in 2012, is a customer of Socrata, a venture-funded, Seattle-based software company with an office in Washington, D.C. And Denver opted to develop its own site, costing about 2,221 hours of labor, valued at approximately $100,000, according to Denver’s Department of Finance.
Last month, the city of Miami signed up for OpenGov, paying a fee of about $20,000 a year. The system could save staff the trouble of dealing with requests for publicly available information, said Jelani Newton, the city’s strategic planning and performance manager.
Though financial information was publicly available before OpenGov, it used to take staff a couple of days to track down the appropriate financial ledger, Newton said. “That’s time [in which] the staff could be more productive.”
The city government still plans to closely assess whether the software is worth the investment by measuring visits to the site, and whether it actually does reduce the amount of time staff spends processing information requests.
“This tool isn’t necessarily going to allow us to do more analysis than we’ve done before,” Newton said. “It just helps to engage the public in discussions.”
OpenGov has seeded its board of advisers with government veterans — members include Adrian Fenty, former mayor of Washington, George Shultz, former U.S. treasury secretary, and former North Dakota Democrat senator Byron Dorgan.
Dorgan, who was introduced to Bookman through a mutual friend, said he joined the board because he had first-hand experience running an agency, as the North Dakota state tax commissioner from 1969 to 1980. “I understood how difficult it is to access information,” he said.
It remains to be seen how profitable OpenGov can be. The company, still in its early stages, does not share financial specifics — though Bookman noted the company is currently investing heavily in product design, research and software development.
And though some customers have asked whether the company can design similar software for reporting other non-financial data-sets, he noted that the company plans to remain focused on making budgets accessible to the public.
“Financial transparency is what people care about,” he said.