When its portal goes live likely later this month, Morton County will join a handful of local governments in North Dakota using OpenGov.
OpenGov is a cloud-based software for government entities to basically publish their checkbook for the public to see. Morton County Commissioner Cody Schulz said the county began serious discussions in August about providing its financial information online — something he said offers "ease of use" for residents in a geographically large county where some people are 50 miles or more from the courthouse in Mandan.
“We wanted to make sure they had access to information on demand when they wanted it without having to travel," Schulz said.
Morton County Auditor Dawn Rhone said the public will be able to view such information as departments' budgets, including line items and vendor payments, going back about five years.
“I think it’s just a good tool to provide the taxpayers so, if they do want to see what we’re spending our money on, it’s all right there at their fingertips rather than someone who wants to know is not very likely to come in here and dig through paper, but if they can do it sitting at home and look through there, it’s just a better way to be transparent,” she said.
Product manager Jason Carian gave a recent presentation about OpenGov to the interim legislative Judiciary Committee, highlighting the software’s ease and accessibility for the public.
“We’ve seen folks have a 30 percent or more reduction in their inbound public records requests, so when they partner with us, once the information is out there, they see less folks asking for information because they can access it online, from their couch, on their iPad, wherever it might be,” he said.
Carian said other government entities in North Dakota that have partnered with OpenGov include Cass and McKenzie counties and the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks.
Cass County and Grand Forks launched their portals in 2014. McKenzie County's will go live in a month or two, McKenzie County Auditor/Treasurer Erica Johnsrud said. Gregg Schildberger, manager of communications and public affairs for Fargo, said that city's finance department may fully implement the software by August.
OpenGov has a connection to a familiar face from North Dakota: Former Sen. Byron Dorgan sits on OpenGov's board of advisers.
Dorgan said a member of another board on which he serves introduced him to OpenGov. The software is “very user-friendly” for not just citizens, but also for those in government, he said.
“What OpenGov is developing is new, interesting financial systems to allow greater transparency but also allow decision makers much greater information about how money is spent and how it’s budgeted and so on,” Dorgan said. “I think it’s a significant step up in being able to manage local governments.”
Anyone can track transactions and trends as narrow as spending on tires for police vehicles, rather than asking for records that could take days to compile from systems that are often antiquated, according to Dorgan, who said that OpenGov’s data visualization is another plus.
Morton County considered other providers for a financial data portal but selected OpenGov due to price, said Rhone, adding that the county paid $6,357 in an initial fee, including setup, and annual maintenance will cost $10,291.
There may be a learning curve with the county's OpenGov portal, and the public may submit any comments regarding the software, Schulz said.
At the interim Judiciary Committee's meeting earlier this month, Carian and state legislators discussed the potential costs of OpenGov for small counties and tiny cities in North Dakota — even what OpenGov could do as far as publishing public notices.
The committee is considering a bill draft that would allow North Dakota counties to publish their official proceedings on their websites rather than in the official local newspaper.
"Not too often do we sell this product in the sense of to supplement a ... publication requirement," Carian said.
Steve Andrist, executive director of the North Dakota Newspaper Association, told the committee he thinks OpenGov “is a tremendous resource” for the public and reporters that would provide another medium for public information. He also described OpenGov as “more of an addition to” rather than “a replacement for public notices in newspapers.”
“It’s something to add transparency,” Andrist said.