How Data Visualization Supports Capital Improvement Planning

ARTICLE | Mar 19, 2019

Bring capital improvement plans to life for your citizens like the City of Riverside, California

by James Orr, Product Manager, Questica

A capital improvement plan (CIP) is an important financial tool that helps government agencies plan for the acquisition of capital assets and manage funding for infrastructure projects that benefit their communities. A city, state, town or county may have hundreds of capital projects on the go, ranging in cost from hundreds of thousands to billions of dollars, with multi-year timelines and challenging requirements for a project’s successful completion. More and more, citizens expect government agencies to keep them informed of capital projects taking place in their backyard. With the advent of technology making it easier to share financial information with the public, how can government agencies effectively communicate their capital improvement plan and gain citizen support?

Since a CIP contains many moving parts, CIP planning should take place on an annual basis. Doing so ensures consistency between the government agency’s CIP, strategic plan and operating budget. When combined with a solid budgeting process, the CIP can help government agencies make smart investments in public infrastructure and satisfy citizen expectations.

The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) recommends the following best practices to improve a government agency’s capital planning and budgeting process:

Multi-year capital planning: Government agencies should prepare and adopt a comprehensive, fiscally sustainable, multi-year capital plan of at least three years to manage capital assets, and to identify the scope and cost of the scheduled projects.

Capital planning policies: Agencies should develop capital planning policies that reflect the agency’s unique characteristics, organizational structure and external environment. The capital planning policies should also include an assessment of the agency’s financial capacity to determine what projects can be realistically funded.

Master plans and capital planning: Using master plans can help government agencies determine what economic, land use and infrastructure development or redevelopment will be required in ten to twenty-five years.

Environmentally responsible practices: GFOA recommends evaluating the use of environmentally responsible practices in the construction and management of capital assets, and to assess the overall impact of these projects on the community’s quality of life.

Communicating capital improvement strategies: Develop a communications plan about the agency’s CIP that includes activities to build awareness, to promote consultation and to improve engagement with constituents on what projects will or will not provide positive outcomes for the communities they serve.

Presenting the capital budget: The presentation of the government agency’s CIP will improve transparency and accountability with citizens and other stakeholders, and should include a summary/highlights section, details on major capital projects, and operating impacts.

Technology in capital planning and management: Using technology specifically designed for capital planning can improve collaboration and management of the process by key participants.

Capital project monitoring and reporting: Agencies should establish policies and procedures for monitoring and reporting on capital projects to provide accountability, transparency and highlight the outcomes for citizens and their communities.

Long-term financial planning: Government agencies should engage in long-term financial planning that considers future financial scenarios and prepares for any potential challenges.

Considering the cost and scope of capital projects, proactively seeking feedback from citizens and other stakeholders can create open, two-way communication and ensure prioritized projects meet the needs of citizens in the short and long-term. By sharing the data and information around its CIP, strategic plans and financials, a city, state, town or county can build not only trust and support with its constituents but a deeper understanding of how tax dollars are allocated and spent in their community.

In recent years, government agencies across North America have been using data visualization tools to share their capital planning and budgeting process with citizens. Data visualization takes raw financial information and translates the data into interactive visuals, such as charts, graphs, maps and infographics. Since the human brain responds faster and with greater comprehension to visual information, data visualization capitalizes on this natural response by providing context to the capital planning data. Information that was previously hidden in printed reports and/or complex spreadsheets can now be explored interactively by citizens for greater clarity and understanding.

One leading city who is working hard to be transparent and engage its citizens is the City of Riverside in California. Riverside launched an online budget portal to help citizens learn more about the city’s finances. Called “Engage Riverside”, the portal provides citizens with access to comprehensive government records, reports, data and financial information.

“Riverside embraces transparency, and this online tool will give residents and business owners the opportunity to become more informed about the budget document whenever they choose,” Mayor Rusty Bailey said in the city’s public announcement.

Last year, they were recognized by the Center of Digital Government in their 2018 Digital Cities Survey. The survey commends cities for using technology to tackle social challenges, enhance cybersecurity, improve transparency, and much more.

As part of their strategic initiatives around data transparency and finances, the City of Riverside launched visualizations to drive awareness and understanding with its citizens around not only the overall budget, but the funding and progress of its capital projects.

The online portal includes a capital projects map that displays all of the city’s 161 infrastructure projects included in its current $650 million five-year CIP. The portal displays total expected project costs, actual spend, funding sources, milestones and related project information, such as images and plans. Directly integrated with Riverside’s budget data, the map’s interactive visual format allows citizens to search, filter and drill down through the financial information to learn more about how their tax dollars are spent on improvement programs and projects taking place across the city, and what is happening in the community where they live and work.

For instance, picture John Smith, a citizen of Riverside and regular patron of the library on Mission Inn Avenue. On a recent visit to the library, John recalls that a new library is being planned and that he attended a community meeting to provide his input and voice support for a new library. To see the City’s adopted budget, John visits the Engage Riverside portal to review their capital projects map. With a quick search, John quickly learns from the data visuals that a capital project will replace the old library with a 42,000 square foot facility with additional community meeting space, new historic programs, creative workspaces, and expanded children's services. The new library has an estimated cost of $43 million with construction slated to begin this year and estimated project completion in the summer of 2020. John can also see that library construction is funded with new tax revenues as part of Riverside’s “Promises Made, Promises Kept” initiative to spend the new revenue source on community priorities.

With the online portal, citizens of Riverside have self-service access to the City’s financial information when it is convenient to them. As a result, Riverside has increased their accountability and transparency as a local government. Kristie Thomas, Budget and Revenue Manager at the City of Riverside, is a clear fan of data visualization in the budget process. “Data visualization makes financial information more accessible to the public and stimulates community involvement,” Thomas said. “The CIP data visualization tool is an excellent addition to our community engagement toolbox. Pictures and timelines of the City’s capital projects are generating excitement and anticipation in the community.”

Today’s government agencies face numerous challenges around how capital projects are prioritized and funded. To make smart investments in infrastructure, government agencies use capital improvement planning best practices to guide their decisions and stay aligned to their strategic plan and operating budget. By using new technology like data visualization tools, government agencies can inform citizens of capital projects and create an avenue for two-way communication, as well as promote accountability and transparency. The City of Riverside’s online portal is a prime example of how data visualization can transform complex capital planning information into easy to understand visuals.

About James Orr and Questica

As the Product Manager for Questica, I lead the company’s strategy for budget, performance and data transparency solutions. Follow me at @questica_james, or email questions and comments to For over 20 years, Questica been working with government agencies and other public sector organizations to enable data-driven budgeting and decision-making, while increasing data accuracy, saving time and improving stakeholder trust. Our customers are using our Questica Budget suite to drive budget transformation by creating a single source of data truth. Almost 700 organizations across North America in 46 states and 11 provinces/territories have eliminated spreadsheets opting for smarter planning, budgeting, performance measures, management, reporting, transparency and engagement with our software solutions. Visit us on Corporate Partner Avenue at the 2019 TLG Conference in Reno, or at to learn more or email us at

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