New Transparency in Los Angeles

by Ben Davis

Last week Los Angeles launched Control Panel L.A., the Controller’s new website that brings an unprecedented level of transparency to Los Angeles’ spending (check out the LA Times article). As laid out in our Transparency in City Spending report earlier this year, being able to see how the City of Los Angeles uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy – Control Panel L.A. will promote public participation in government decisions and empower citizens and watchdog groups to ensure that city contracts awarded to private companies are funds well spent. While the website has many great features, there are still some areas for improvement. Let’s go over what is available on Control Panel L.A. and the ways the site can be improved.

What’s available? The highlight of the website is CheckbookLA – a tool that allows users to view the payments made to individual companies. CheckbookLA is both comprehensive and user-friendly – the database covers $1.3 billion in payments made to 3,800 vendors in over 40 city departments, and is searchable by contracting company, purchasing department and type of expenditure. The website’s Data Catalog also allows users to download the entire dataset of checkbook-level spending information for offline analysis.

One of the great features of the checkbook tool is that it allows for civil society groups to access the data through an application programming interface (API) – opening the door for online programs and smartphone apps that analyze city spending data in real-time, which can keep citizens informed and promote public engagement in government decisions. The website is all chock-full of pertinent information on the city’s revenue, payroll and audits.

Where is there room for improvement? While CheckbookLA does a good job in enumerating the city payments to vendors, it doesn’t provide details on the goods or services purchased. For citizens and watchdog groups to be able ensure that specific payments to vendors are good uses of taxpayer dollars, they must be able to learn what exactly is purchased. The best practice here is to provide a copy of the contract signed between the vendor and city.

The other major way the website can improve is by providing checkbook-level details for the city’s economic development subsidies, such as those provided through tax-increment financing. Currently, the “Businesses & Economic Development” category of the Data Catalog is blank and details on the subsidies received by companies and other recipients are not available elsewhere on the website. 

Overall, congratulations to L.A. – a couple additional steps and the portal will be a top-notch transparency website.