When Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman took office in 2018, he partnered with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran to open and modernize county finances. Investing nearly $1.3 million since 2019, his office launched a user-friendly data platform, Open Nassau, in which the public can access county records, report financial issues, and keep updated on smart audits and equity reports. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Herald: What are the goals and motivations behind Open Nassau?
Jack Schnirman: Culture change is what we are looking to achieve. It’s not just about technology, it’s about bringing everyone on an equal playing field because everyone has access to the exact same information. Then we can have a conversation that is evidence-based and data-driven without anyone hoarding the information like how it used to be.
Before we did this program, county had a D+ in transparency by the Press Club on Long Island. It was all paper-based, it was a challenge to get numbers, you had to do all these foils, and there were conflicting numbers and conflicting views on the numbers. Open Nassau became an organizing principle to get everybody to deal from a simple set of numbers.
Herald: When you were trying to implement Open Nassau initially, did you get a lot pushback from the current establishment?
Schnirman: Not as much as you would think. There was pushback based on that old-timey culture of holding information so close to the vest and using access to it as a way of safeguarding power. Culture starts from the top, so that culture change started directly from the top where you have the comptroller and the county executive on the same page.
Herald: Was the focus on equity issues a purposeful and directed decision?
Schnirman: Absolutely. One of the earliest choices we made was in investing in a qualitative research unit. We started by tackling our demographics: who we are as the county population, how quickly we are diversifying, getting older, getting more diverse, and use that as an opening point for a conversation on equity.
Then, we asked the question: What’s the deal of living in Nassau County? We started highlighting the different affordability challenges that folks face. Our formula was about identifying gaps, looking at best practices from around the country, and highlighting options on the policy side so we can remain competitive and be a place where people want to and can afford to live.
Herald: So how do get from transparency to accountability?
Schnirman: The honest answer is that we can’t do everything ourselves since that’s beyond the role of our office. We try to find folks to partner with, whether it be within government, and/or expert and advocacy organizations. Our worst fear is that we write these reports, make these recommendations, we make them graphically appealing, we put them on social media, and we push, we push, we push, and nobody pays attention and nobody does anything.
Herald: How are you ensuring the continuation of Open Nassau for the new comptroller?
Schnirman: We are working around the clock to make sure the work is sustainable and to make it as difficult or impossible to pull back from this kind of transparency. If the next comptroller removes Open Nassau, for example, I would like to believe that they would face an awful lot of questions and frustration about how and why they could undo that kind of advancement.
Herald: How does Open Nassau impact county residents?
Schnirman: We do this work, we make things faster, more transparent, more efficient, so that resources go where they need to go. The pandemic was an unforeseen, once-in-a-generation level crisis, and we saw the measure of our work. We made sure we were prioritizing getting the resources needed to the non-profits because if something suddenly dried up, the service would stop in that moment when it was needed more than ever.
Herald: Did the pandemic help accelerate the implementation of Open Nassau?
We could’ve talked for years about making things more tech-based, but instead the crisis of the pandemic created the necessity to do them overnight. It was a sink-or-swim moment, and success is not guaranteed when you have a county government that has not historically invested enough in technology infrastructure. It’s a testament to the workforce, to the innovation of our teams, and to the understanding that you can’t afford to fail. Those shifts were shockingly smooth.