L.A.'s new financial website not quite useless... but almost

losangeles3.jpgSo now we know that on Dec. 21, 2012 the city cut a check to AT&T for $1,387.83 to cover something. The day before Verizon was receiving $909.10, also for something. Oh, and the Planning Department's payroll is $22.3 million and a bunch of city employees makes more than $300,000. All this and more - so much more - is found on Control Panel L.A., the latest effort at transparent city government. "This data is not our data. It is the public's data," said Mayor Eric Garcetti in rolling out the website, which is being overseen by L.A.'s new controller, Ron Galperin. "The more tools we give to people to look at data, to track important measures, the more power that they will have to control the direction of their city government." Well, maybe. There's certainly nothing wrong with information - the more of it that's easy to access, the better. And to be fair, I've only done a brief scan on what's available. But the truth is much of the information on Control Panel L.A. can be found by prowling through the city's budget documents. That includes granular data on revenues and expenditures. I know that Garcetti and Galperin mean well and really want to open up the process, but transparency is not so much the issue; it's context. Knowing that L.A. gets 28 percent of its revenue through property taxes is a useless data point unless we can find out why it's higher than previous years and what it means for public policy. After property taxes, the next highest revenue percentage comes from a category called "inter-fund operating transfer," which is one of those public sector accounting terms that basically involves moving money around. That sure tells you a lot. As L.A. Observed columnist Bill Boyarsky noted in assessing the mayor's own data-crammed website, "The departmental reports so far are not informative. They contain data - plenty of numbers but no way of judging whether money is spent well." (Which raises another question: Why are these sites operating separately?) And not to quibble, but I found the Control Panel L.A. to be confusing and incomplete. In other words, not quite useless ... but almost.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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