What are the most fruitful ways to dissect a city budget for the non-accountant? Are there any standards for releasing budget data that I should be advocating?

In my particular case(Fort Lauderdale, FL), I am working with unofficial documents provided by the city upon request. I am interested in putting together some kind of visualization, but I am having difficulty understanding the basics of the budget.

I did notice that there seems to be a reporting of local budgets(at least part of them) to the state (i.e. Transparency Florida's Local Budgets page), hopefully using a standard format.

  • In terms of visualization, a Tree Map like the one the NY Times publishes for the U.S. federal budget (www.nytimes.com/packages/html/newsgraphics/2011/0119-budget) is a great tool for comparing in context.
    – Zebby Dee
    May 7, 2014 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


open budget and open spending are what you are looking for:

openspending csv format is basic, but still quite confusing, at least for me:
you only need three columns: date, amount, unique id. from what i can tell, there is no way to automate this, and you're going to have to literally get all up in the guts of budget documents, and rip out what you need. i created a google doc you can see/copy here:

there's more to openspending than three columns, plus my explanation is quite vague, so loading data into openspending in-depth guide here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YBXX6du4rOV6OutZncT7gyJeOA7zHml3cC1TtWJW65w/edit

openspending is where you want to submit actual spending, so final budgets, and openbudget is where you want to release budget submissions, proposals, etc.

  • Thank you for this information. I am a member of code for ftl, and we too are just starting. I would definitely like to have an open data portal, but there isn't one that I am aware of.
    – Ryan Gates
    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:35
  • did a hangout with openspending today...got some good insight. actually starting publishing a dataset...not done ;) you can always use drive to save you .csv too. or dropbox. clearly a portal is optimal, but really, anywhere... on that note, we also have data.openva...look into florida having a generic portal, in case you don't have a local one. ping me if you wanna know how its coming @jalbertbowdenii
    – albert
    Feb 20, 2014 at 3:34
  • I feel like your answer is correct, but can you summarize all the information into an easily digestable answer?
    – Ryan Gates
    Feb 23, 2014 at 18:48
  • @RyanGates i'm not happy with this edit. and i could careless about the points...i just want to get this concise and clear for everyone, because i've been asking your question for over a year now. i'll come back and rethink this later, but if you have any thoughts, please share.
    – albert
    Feb 24, 2014 at 13:32

From having been an elected municipal official (although for a really small municipality), I found that you generally had to look at how a given line item changed from year to year. (eg, this line was up 30% from last year).

Of course, this means that when they start re-classifying expenses, or moving them around between departments, it's more difficult to see.

I also found it useful to look at not just the previous year's budget, but its status each month -- some items would be a lump payment at the beginning or end of the year (eg, membership dues), while others would be a steady rate through the year (eg, salary). Some would vary, but have a known curve to it (eg, electrical bills). This was important so that we'd know if we had used 60% of a given line when we were only 6 months in, if that was going to be a problem or not. If an item was only at 40%, did that mean we could move funds from there to somewhere else?

  • Currently only the yearly budget is published. Do you know if there are any standards for classifying expenses?
    – Ryan Gates
    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:37
  • 1
    @RyanGates : other than GAAP's breakdown of funds categories, I'm not aware of anything. Our town breaks things down by department (Safety, Public Works, General Administration), but we used to separate out Highways & Streets (for reporting to the state ... when they cut our highway user funds by 90%, we stopped doing it). Stuff that's grant funded, use restricted funds, or that are reimbursed (or credited) from the state get seperated out.
    – Joe
    Feb 21, 2014 at 1:26
  • 1
    It's worth noting that the GAAP's standards are specific to/developed by Washington State.
    – Ryan Gates
    Sep 8, 2014 at 2:59

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