Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A look inside TrackDC

With little fanfare, although covered by DCist, DC this week rolled out its new resource that according to the website allows residents
to track how District Government is working for you.   You can use these pages to track the performance of individual agencies, learn more about agencies Key Performance Indicators, Budget, Spending and News, access agency Data and Connect to the agency.

This is good, right?   This tool lets people see what they are getting for their money.   TrackDC is one way that the Fenty Administration has fulfilled a promise to operate "a more transparent and responsive government with fresh energy and ideas."   (From Mayor Fenty’s 100 Days and Beyond: 2007 Action Plan for the District of Columbia)

The tool is a step in the right direction.   Kinda sorta.   But as rolled out, it has some limitations.

Limitation #1:   No definitions -- Budgets, like other things, have a language all their own.   That is why it is so important to define the terms used.   TrackDC does not do this so I am.
  • Encumbered spending:   These are budgeted funds that have not yet been spent but which are legally obligated or "set aside" for a specific purpose.   Once encumbered funds are actually paid out, they become "spent" funds.
  • Spent funds:   Those funds that are used and no longer available.
  • Burn rate:   This tells us how fast the funds are being spent.
  • FTE:   This stands for full-time equivalent.   One FTE can equal one full-time person in the way most of us consider full-time, 36.5/40 hours per week or two part-time, 20 hour per week staff.
  • Gross funds:   These are all funds that make up an agency’s budget.   They can include Local, Federal, Intra-district, and Other.

Limitation #2:   Little explanation of what things mean or why they are important

  • Burn rate:   Ok, so you know that this tells us how fast an agency is spending money.   What TrackDC does not tell the public, though, is that not all funds are treated equally.   In the "Budget & Operational Information" section, for example, you will see that the burn rate for Fixed Costs is 95% while the burn rate for "Other" is 33%.   Without knowing that fixed costs are not like other funding, you might conclude that CFSA is spending its money faster than it should.   We are, after all, about one-third of the way through the fiscal year. However, in order to assure that agencies pay their rent and electric bills, the Office of Finance and Resource Management (OFRM) takes all or most of the fixed costs allocation at the beginning of the fiscal year.

    What this section does do is allow folks to ask questions about why the burn rate is the way it is.   CFSA’s report shows that the burn rate for pay periods is 35% (9/26) at the same time that the burn rate for the total, salary and other personnel spending categories are 30%, 29%, and 29% respectively.   Does the current vacancy rate of 6.22% account for the difference?   If the agency has 55 fewer employees than it needs to do the work, why isn’t overtime spending happening faster or are the vacancies in areas where OT is not paid?

  • Website traffic:   So the questions are:
    • Why is this an indicator for this agency?
    • Does the graph represent unique visitors, page visits, etc.?
    • Is the use pattern desirable?

    Admittedly, there should be considerably information on the CFSA website even though there is already a lot.   And, the site should be more user-friendly.   But the measure does nothing to help the agency or the public answer the questions listed above nor does it move the agency to address the more fundamental concerns of content and usability.   So again, why is this an indicator for this agency?

Limitation #3:   No underlying data
  • Sunlight Lab’s Clay Johnson praises the city for moving the ball forward on information access.   Yes, this tool does do that – kind of.   Much of this data has been available from agencies in the past, some going back to the Williams Administration.   What people want is the underlying data that allows the techies to create these dashboards.   Using CFSA as an example again, we know from the FY09 Performance Accountability Report that CFSA achieved Initiative 2.3, Increase and expedite permanency youth:
    CFSA reviewed all youth with goal of APPLA (Alternative Planned Permanent Living Arrangement) by June 30, 2009, there has also been a significant reduction in the number of youth with that goal since July of 2008.   Currently CFSA is focused on ensuring the remaining youth are being prepared for adulthood as well as connecting with permanent adult relationships resulting in permanent homes.

    What we don’t know is the number of youth with the goal of APPLA at both points in time referenced in the explanation.   We also don’t know the number of teens in out-of-home placements.

My takeaway?   This is a tool that may be helpful.   It is getting us closer (maybe) to what the public, particularly the advocates, have been asking for, some demanding.   Is it all that?   No.   So the question is, what can we do to get the kinds of information that people really need and want?

And let's not forget the other quesion:   Does this rollout have anything to do with the upcoming election?   Remember the 100 day plan and various campaign promises.

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