Every spring, conversations about Houston’s ever-growing annual budget consume City Hall, and this year was no different.
Weeks of press conferences, budget workshops and public meetings culminated in a vote Wednesday by the City Council to approve Houston’s $6.2 billion budget for the next fiscal year.
But understanding how that behemoth breaks down can be a difficult task when armed with just the city’s hundreds of pages of budget documents.
To combat some of that difficulty, the city of Houston launched its Open Finance online hub in July 2022.
“Our goal was to of course make the overall finances of the city more transparent,” said Houston’s Director of Finance William Jones.
The website is broken down into three categories and houses raw data and interactive visualizations to help Houstonians better understand the city’s finances, Jones said.
In-depth information about the city’s budget, payroll and payments made to vendors are available to view dating back to 2018.
Before the implementation of Open Finance, Jones said, the city’s financial data was “kinda all over the place.”
Raw data lived in one location, budget documents in another and the city controller’s website housed even more information, he said.
But now that Houston’s financial data has been made more accessible, Jones worries that residents are not actually accessing it.
Jones said he heard a handful of residents mention Open Finance when asking questions during this year’s budget workshops, but he said the number of users could improve.
“It’s not as much as I would like,” he said.
So, how can Houstonians use Open Finance to better understand the city’s budget?
Open Finance can be found and accessed online at openfinance.houstontx.gov.
The city also made short videos demonstrating how to navigate Open Finance.
The first of the six interactive graphics offers users an overview of the city’s expenditures and revenues.
Users can examine how much money the city has spent and how much money it has made since 2018, broken down by department, fund type and ledger.
The second graphic offers a more in-depth look at how two specific budgets compare to one another.
This graphic explicitly lays out how much the budget of each department or fund has changed over time. This tool can be used to compare between different years, or between the proposed and actual budget of the same year.
The third of the city’s graphics compares how much money is spent on personnel versus other expenses in a given year.
This graphic also breaks down the city’s various revenue sources, like fees and taxes.
Open Finance’s fourth budget graphic subtracts expenses from revenues to help visualize the sustainability of a single year’s budget. Users can also look at all revenues minus expenditures since 2018.
The fifth graphic breaks down either expenditures or revenues into a buildable flowchart model.
Users can add or remove various subcategories to see how a budget breaks down into specific spending or revenue categories.
Open Finance’s final interactive graphic is an Excel spreadsheet-style matrix allowing users to compare revenues, expenditures and their differences across every budget since 2018.
The matrix can be edited to only include certain years, or certain budgets from each year.
The financial data powering Open Finance updates monthly, coinciding with the city’s financial reports, Jones said.
And while usability was front of mind when designing the tool’s interactive graphics, Jones said improvements are always on the table. As funding becomes available and technology improves, Jones hopes to keep the Open Finance interface looking fresh and new.
For now, Jones hopes the online tool helps Houstonians feel more involved and connected to the city’s financial and budgetary choices.
Questions about Open Finance can be directed to the city’s finance department.