Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners working session (Oct. 7, 2010): At its recent working session, the board heard presentations on two topics: 1) a new initiative called OpenBook, which is making more of the county’s financial information available online, and 2) an update on efforts to create a coordinated funding model involving the Washtenaw United Way, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor and the Urban County.
Mary Jo Callan, director of the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, gave the coordinated funding update and fielded several questions from commissioners. She’d given a similar presentation at last month’s meeting of the Urban County executive committee.
Andy Brush, the county’s webmaster, made a presentation on the OpenBook project, which launched to the public on Friday. Commissioner Conan Smith questioned the amount of staff time involved in the initiative, and asked that they monitor usage of the site, to determine whether it’s worth the resources they need to invest. His comments earned a sharp rebuke from commissioner Kristin Judge, who has spearheaded the project. Minimal staff time is involved, she said, and taxpayers have a right to this information, noting that the push to transparency was a directive from President Barack Obama. Both Judge and Smith are Democrats.
Andy Brush began his presentation about the OpenBook project by noting that the board had passed a resolution at their July 2010 meeting that authorized the initiative. [.pdf file of OpenBook resolution]
Brush recalled a board meeting a few years ago, when a citizen stood at the podium during public commentary, speaking to commissioners because he was angry about some information he’d read on the county’s website. “In the world of transparency,” Brush said, “that’s when you’re winning.” The point is to provide people with information so that there can be a discussion based on what the county is actually doing, he said, not based on what people think the county is doing.
The county has been providing information on its website for many years, Brush said, but the information has been in various places that wasn’t necessarily easy to find. The current initiative was prompted by commissioners Kristen Judge and Wes Prater, after they returned from a National Association of Counties (NACo) conference last year where they’d heard about similar initiatives in other states.
Brush showed examples of sites in Palm Bay, Florida; Jefferson County, Colo.; and Ann Arbor. The county is already participating in the city of Ann Arbor’s data catalog, he said – for example, by providing the county’s GIS data.
The county’s OpenBook site – which is accessible directly or via a link on the board’s homepage – includes budget documents, financial reports, check registers and commissioners’ flex account reports. More information will be rolled out in the coming months, including salaries, purchasing card and credit card reports. There’s also a link to ask questions of staff, and a link directing you to the county’s Freedom of Information Act page.
Brush said the county is hoping to provide context for the information, as well as the raw data. They didn’t want to just throw up 16,000 lines of data, he said, but are trying to give sufficient detail – about who’s spending the money, and for what purpose – so that it’s understandable.
Before going public, the site has been accessible to employees, and the OpenBook team has been working with department heads for several months, making sure they were addressing concerns about privacy. Brush pointed to a whereas clause in the board’s transparency resolution that outlines some of the considerations they made as they were compiling the data for public view:
WHEREAS, the presumption of openness does not preclude the legitimate protection of information whose release is exempted by the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, or in any other way protected by any applicable state or federal law, would threaten security, invade personal privacy, breach confidentiality, or in any way damage other genuinely compelling interests;
Brush thanked the members of the staff who had worked on this effort. He also thanked Prater and Judge, praising them for providing direction and helping deliver something valuable to the citizens of Washtenaw County.
Commissioner Questions, Comments
Conan Smith began by asking how many hours of staff time have gone into the project. Brush said he didn’t have that information offhand, but could report back. Smith then said it was important to track all the time spent responding to questions that result from the initiative, and to track the number of hits that the site gets. He requested a monthly report with that information.
Brush said the experience of other municipalities is that they prepared for a deluge of questions from the public that never came. He also pointed out that there were brief meetings associated with the project, but indicated that the time spent on it wasn’t onerous.
It’s important to recognize that data is not democracy, Smith said. Providing data doesn’t necessarily result in a better process. He is concerned about projects like this – adding that the county isn’t trying to hide anything or make information hard to access. But at a time like this, with budget concerns and pinched resources, layering on this kind of work requires that they be attentive to the impact of this decision. He said he hoped that the board pays close attention to how much time it was taking and how much value they were deriving from the project, as reflected in how much the information is used. If they’re spending $20,000 to $30,000 a year for information that’s used by 12 people, that’s nutty, he said. If hundreds of people are using it, then it’s probably a wise thing to do.
Kristin Judge responded by saying that she couldn’t disagree with Smith more. First, she said, they didn’t spend anywhere close to $20,000 to do this project. Secondly, it’s their responsibility to make spending information available – it’s the taxpayers’ money, she noted. If a constituent wants to talk for three hours about why someone at the county spent $9 on gas, she said, “I’ll take that call.”
Judge pointed out that especially during election season, the staff already spent hours responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. If that information had been online already, she said, they would have actually saved time. For example, what if information about commissioner expenses had been online? she asked. [The comment was an allusion to the previous evening's board meeting, when commissioner Mark Ouimet was accused by Democrat Tom Wieder during public commentary of claiming per diem payments to which he wasn’t entitled. Wieder based his comments on five years of material about Ouimet's spending that had been requested under the FOIA.]
The transparency initiative is a “phenomenal” program, Judge said. Even if only five residents use it, it’s still worth it. She reminded her colleagues that this was a directive from President Obama, and that the state legislature might be mandating similar action statewide, as other states are doing, so it’s important to be ahead of the curve. “I see no downside to it,” she said.
Barbara Bergman expressed concern that there was no narrative around the numbers provided on the website. She said she wasn’t arguing that taxpayers aren’t entitled to know how their money is spent. But the easiest way to get rid of people is to give them a pile of data, she said – that’s not necessarily helpful to them, she cautioned. Bergman agreed with Smith that the project should be evaluated, adding that she wants to make sure it’s easier for people to get information, not harder.
Wes Prater urged Smith and Bergman to visit the websites of other municipalities that had done similar projects – Washtenaw County didn’t reinvent the wheel, he said. They didn’t spend time creating something new, but rather used existing models that were working. He reiterated the fact that taxpayers deserved to know how their money is spent, and that people are interested in getting that information. Prater noted that the Washtenaw County Road Commission’s website gets a lot of hits – and doesn’t even have the kind of information that the county’s website will have available.
Smith told Judge that he knows this is a project she’s involved with personally, and he didn’t intend to denigrate it. By way of background, at one of the board’s initial discussions of this project at a Feb. 18, 2010 working session, Smith had expressed more enthusiasm. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:
Conan Smith suggested prioritizing data by looking at what information people were already pulling from the county’s website. He said he was excited about the possibility of third-party apps – software applications developed by people outside of county government, but using county data.
At Thursday’s meeting, he said the effectiveness of any new project should be examined. He noted that if there were nine people involved in it, and each person attended a meeting, that alone involved nine man-hours. When you factor in other things, like fielding queries from the public, it could quickly add up to $20,000, he said. The question is whether they’ll fairly evaluate the project, he added. He hoped that the public would be engaged and use the site, but it would be foolhardy not to monitor usage.
Judge said that not all people involved in the project came to each meeting, and at any rate, those meetings would be ending now that the project was launched. She restated her belief that they’d be saving on staff time for responding to FOIA requests.
Judge also pointed out that spending habits would likely change, since people would be aware that their spending information would now be easily accessible. People will think before they spend, she said. Judge also pointed out that by asking Brush to provide monthly reports, Smith himself was creating more work. She concluded by inviting Smith to ask his constituents if they wanted to have the county’s check register online. She said she hasn’t talked with anyone who hasn’t wanted that information to be available.
Ken Schwartz acknowledged that there would be startup costs with any project, but said only time will tell if it’s worth the investment. He agreed with Judge that the project had a good goal, and acknowledged that it was a presidential directive. He said he just hoped the information was properly used by citizens – data without context can be misleading or mis-characterized, he said. A year from now, they’ll have a better idea about that.
Brush noted that he’d been the “cheapskate” on the project, opting to post information as .pdf or MS Excel files rather than using more sophisticated methods of displaying it, which would have taken more time to put together. He also noted that they used open source software, which is available at no cost to the county.
Smith said he wasn’t talking about just data and dollars, but about the whole process of trust and engagement with the public. The provision of information and accessibility – it’s not necessarily an essential component of public engagement, he said. He wants the board to be keenly aware that feeding people information isn’t sufficient for getting the community to the point of setting priorities. If they’re spending all their time responding to individuals who have complaints about items on a ledger, then, concluded Smith, “I think it’s a sign that we lost.”
Coordinated Funding Initiative
Mary Jo Callan, director of the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, gave a presentation to commissioners similar to one she made at the Sept. 28 meeting of the Urban County executive committee.
The Urban County – a consortium of 11 local governments, including Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County – oversees the allocation of federal grants for low-income housing and neighborhood stabilization. It is one of three groups that is considering joining a coordinated funding approach for local nonprofits. The United Way of Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation also could be part of that effort.
Currently, the county and city of Ann Arbor coordinate their funding of nonprofits through the office of community development, which separately provides staff support for the Urban County nonprofit allocations.
The five entities – city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, Urban County, United Way, and Ann Arbor Area Community Foundatin – provide about $5 million annually for local human services nonprofits. Of that, about $2.6 million comes from the local governments involved, with $2.3 million from United Way and $300,000 from the community foundation.
The public/private model would focus funding on six priorities that have been identified for the entire county: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food. Callan’s staff – with representatives from each of the five entities – would review applications from nonprofits and make funding recommendations. Each governing entity subsequently would review and approve recommendations tied to their funding sources.
There are already collaborative efforts underway, such as a common online grant application system. Over the past few months, representatives from these different entities have been talking about how to work even more closely, with an eye toward better organizing the community’s investments in nonprofits. They’ve met with nonprofit leaders to get feedback, as well as with key donors, business leaders and other stakeholders.
Funders have been asking nonprofits to work together and collaborate, Callan said, so modeling that kind of approach makes sense. That’s one of four principles that guide this approach: 1) focusing on the consumer of services, not on the organization that provides the services, 2) creating savings and improving the process for funders and service providers, 3) leveraging the assets and strengths of each funding organization, and 4) providing a model of cooperation and collaboration.
Each of the priority areas – housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food – will have a planning/coordinating group that will help make recommendations about the kinds of services that the community needs. For example, the Blueprint for Aging consortium could identify needs of senior citizens in the community, while the Washtenaw Housing Alliance could do the same for the needs of the homeless or people needing low-income housing. These planning/coordinating groups wouldn’t be making actual funding decisions, Callan said, but would be providing input and guidance. [.pdf file of planning/coordinating groups]
United Way and the community foundation would fund these planning groups, Callan said, and coordinate capacity-building grants as well – funds for one-time projects that would support the infrastructure of nonprofits. Examples of capacity building include leadership training, accounting or technology systems, or help with strategic planning.
The overall approach will be outcomes-oriented, Callan said. She gave some examples of current measurements in some of these priority areas. One of those examples related to eviction prevention programs funded in FY2009-10 by the county and Ann Arbor – five nonprofit providers assisted 784 households in keeping permanent housing for six months after assistance was provided. For shelter and housing programs during that same period, 10 nonprofits assisted 314 people to maintain permanent housing for 12 months after they left the program.
The governing entities of all five groups are expected to vote on this initiative at meetings in late October and early November. The county board’s vote is likely to occur on Nov. 3, while Ann Arbor’s city council is expected to vote at its Nov. 4 meeting. If all groups approve, the effort would begin early next year, in preparation for a two-year funding cycle starting in July 2011.
Callan concluded her presentation with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Coordinated Funding: Commissioner Questions, Comments
Leah Gunn, who chairs the Urban County executive committee, said she’s been part of a work group that’s been developing this approach over the past year. The boards of United Way and the community foundation had some concerns about working with government entities, she said, but they overcame their initial reluctance. She said the approach does take into account both small nonprofits as well as new ones, and it will result in better accountability as well as lower costs for both the funders and the nonprofits. She urged her colleagues to give it serious consideration.
In response to a question from Barbara Bergman, Callan said that there will certainly be people who are dissatisfied with this approach, because the reality is that not every nonprofit can be funded. There will always be nonprofits that don’t fit into this model or these priorities, she said. But their goal is to think about the services that are being provided and how those services benefit the people who need them. Callan said she’s an advocate for nonprofits that do good work, but they’re just a vehicle to serve the citizens.
Bergman suggested that county departments – like the public health department – be included among the planning/coordinating groups. She said she supported the effort, but thought there would be a bumpy road in implementing it.
Jeff Irwin noted that he’d previously held a job with a nonprofit and had experience dealing with the mountains of paperwork and reports needed to secure grant funding. It’s important to recognize that this coordinated approach will also save time and money for nonprofits, he said. Irwin then asked Callan to characterize the way that the office of community development had saved staff time and money since it started coordinating funding for the county, Ann Arbor and Urban County.
Callan said that previously, each entity had its own process, and each had a director and staff that would identify priorities, develop requests for proposals (RFPs), meet with nonprofits, recruit selection committees, and review applications. About 90% of the applicants were identical for all three funding entities, she said, so the same work was essentially being done three times. Now, that work is handled by her office for all three government entities.
Irwin also questioned Callan regarding administrative overhead, and whether that was a factor in deciding who gets funded. Callan said they currently don’t request information about the percentage a nonprofit spends on administrative costs, though they do look at how a nonprofit leverages its funding, as well as its management structure and financial controls. When Irwin suggested that they consider including administrative costs as a metric, Callan agreed that it was a relevant factor, but noted that this is a small community and she’s sure they aren’t funding any nonprofit that’s spending an excessive amount on overhead. County administrator Verna McDaniel, who serves on the funding review committee, said that’s an item they discuss when reviewing applications – the process addresses his concern, she said.
Mark Ouimet noted that it’s possible for other funding organizations to join this effort in the future, and he thinks they will. It’s just the start, he said, and he commended Callan and her staff for their work.
Kristin Judge also thanked Callan, then asked what would happen if one of the entities decided to pull out. Although the county provides about $1 million to human services nonprofits, it’s possible at some point that they might need to cut back, she said.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is being developed that addresses this issue, Callan said. All of this is contingent on funding being available, and there’s an understanding that if the United Way raises less money, for example, then that’s what they’ll have to work with. In addition, if one of the entities decides to pull out for whatever reason, they’ll need to provide 180 days notice.
Wes Prater urged Callan to reconsider the 180 days, saying that there needed to be glue to hold the groups together. “I don’t think we should give up that easily.” The agreement should allow the groups to work together with whatever resources they have, he said.
Judge also said that she appreciated the concerns of smaller or new nonprofits, who worry that there won’t be room for them in this system. Callan said that having a coordinated approach means there’s actually a better chance for creative ideas to get funded, and that capacity building will be tied to the community’s priorities.
Looking at the planning/coordinating groups that will be giving advice about which nonprofits to fund, Judge noted that the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, which oversees the Blueprint to End Homelessness, hasn’t met in several months. These planning groups need to be active in order to be effective, she said. Callan replied that the WHA understands that they need to refocus on the blueprint’s goals. And if a planning group isn’t effective, she added, her staff will seek out a different group that is. She assured commissioners that they’d have a voice in determining that outcome.
Conan Smith asked about the metrics used to evaluate the planning/coordinating groups, and whether they are aligned with the metrics for evaluating the nonprofits that are funded. Callan said in some cases they’d be closely correlated. She said there were broad community outcomes – keeping people housed and out of homeless shelters, for example – coupled with more specific outcomes tied to individual programs.
Smith asked if the coordinated funding is tied to outcomes being pursued by other community groups – the sheriff’s department, for example. Some of that is happening, Callan said. She said there are many different groups, including the sheriff’s department, that are focused on issues in the 48197 and 48198 zip codes – lower-income areas in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. She said she hopes they’ll be able to coordinate efforts more broadly in the future. Smith agreed, saying the more that they can coordinate, the better off the community will be in the long run.
Smith also discussed the importance of allocating funds for nonprofits to spend on evaluating themselves. Callan said they’d made strides toward that, both in helping nonprofits set realistic goals for themselves, as well as helping them develop tools and strategies to measure those goals. But she expressed concern about telling nonprofits that they wouldn’t be getting more funding, but they’d now be required to spend part of their funding on self-evaluation. She said there are other opportunities to achieve the same outcome.
Smith concluded his remarks by stating his support for the coordinated funding approach, telling Callan it was “awesome – rock on!”
Coordinated Funding: Public Commentary
Lily Au spoke about the coordinated funding initiative during the two available times for public commentary.
She said she spoke on behalf of the poor people in the county, and compared the coordinated funding effort to megastores like Walmart or to a large boat – she brought toy boats as props to illustrate her point, saying that large boats can’t go upstream to help people, like small boats can. She was concerned about administrative fees that she said would take money away from being used for those in need, and said that the effort opened the door to confusion and corruption. [She made a similar presentation, using the boat analogy, at Ann Arbor city council's Oct. 4 meeting.]
Au pointed out that she’s attended several meetings of the Urban County, and that no one ever votes against the staff recommendations. It would be good for more organizations to join the Urban County, she said. Au argued that sometimes small nonprofits are better than big ones, and she urged commissioners to consider these issues before voting to support the coordinated funding effort.
Commissioner Response to Public Commentary
Two commissioners responded to Au’s comments. Leah Gunn noted that she is chair of the Urban County, and said that the group administers federal funds and follows federal rules with great rigor.
Jeff Irwin thanked Au for raising some important questions, and said that they’d been considering the coordinated funding model for many years. All along, he said, they’ve been asking whether this approach will actually save money – before everyone jumps on board, he said, that’s a question that must be answered. He told Au that the point of this initiative was to reduce administrative costs, so that fewer people would need to move paperwork around. That means there’ll be more money for the nonprofits, he said.
Addressing Au’s question about whether this will be good for smaller nonprofits, Irwin said there are positives and negatives, but it’s worth exploring. He liked her large/small boat analogy, and said that a fleet of smaller boats would have as much or more administrative costs than a big boat. So perhaps a hybrid approach of working together would be best, with the flexibility to fund some smaller, scrappier nonprofits. He told Au that he appreciated her zeal.