Saturday, October 23, 2010

Governmental Spending Transparency

I think its time the government opened up its books for the public to see, in a way that isn't completely confusing and complicated. Its time that people have the ability to see the cost-impact of those things they directly voted for, as well as for decisions being made by their elected officials. (For the purposes of this article, I'm going to refer to the United States of America where I live; other countries should be able to do something similar).

If done right, this will solve many problems:
  • people feel like the government is wasting lots of money on unknown things; less hatred of government organizations and incorrect feelings of governmental incompetence.
  • people have no idea the relative size of costs within the government: is $5 million spent on something a lot of money, or not much money at all? If it's a lot, I want to study it and stop them if it's not the best usage of that money. If it's nothing, I want to ignore it and find something bigger to focus on.
  • more ordinary people can become involved in a rudamentary understanding of what our government is accomplishing.
  • TV media could not create outright lies about what our government is doing, how our taxpayers money is being spent. They couldn't get away with it anymore.
  • TV media would not be able to take biased sides like they do today, to deceive people in two extreme ways (liberal and conservative). Media bias would be eliminated by true data access - it will be clear to everyone where they're doctoring the truth; they will not continue their deceptive ways.
  • people are asked to vote, today, on Propositions allocating large dollar amounts for various purposes. How can people vote yes or no on issues without a clear understanding of all the related spending today?
  • the biggest chunks of money must to go the best, right and proper use, in our country. Start fixing the big things first, and work your way down to smaller things. How can we do this today, without a clear understanding of how much is spent where and when? With a proper database, peer pressure (by public viewing of expenditures in a clear form) can solve the problem.
Example: should I vote "yes" to spend money fixing a dam that broke on a river? I can't vote yes or no with a clear conscience until I know some other answers: What other dams are still generating electricity? What other non-dam electricity are we generating? Is it enough? What percentagedid we lose by this dam's outage? What is the effect of this loss? What is the cost of voting no on this issue within 1 year, 5 years, 10 years? How much is the demand for electricity increasing, such that maybe we need the dam next year, but we don't quite need it this year? Is the money to be spent fixing this dam going to be paid back within 1 year of dam operation? 5 years? 10 years? What other states in our country have had dams break recently, and what did they do, fix it (or not)? What was the consequence of their decision? Does the population believe that was the right decision, now that some time has passed?

Simply quoting the exact confusing wording of the proposed law, and listing biased-arguments "for" the proposition, and biased arguments "against" the proposition - that is not enough information to properly vote! With enough proper information, very often a bill will pass with an overwhelming majority for, or against, it - because everyone can clearly see through the smoke, and knows the reality of what is really going on, in a balanced way.

Should I encourage the schools to spend more money on lunches for students? I would, if that's the worst problem the school has. I would NOT if there are more serious problems preventing students from learning, such as a lack of teachers, rooms, safety, or when there are no books in the classroom! Problems are all relative, and the decision can only be made in relation to other related problems. Where is all the other information I need to properly vote on this? If I have to scrounge it all myself, spending hours and hours researching and calling officials during normal business hours - who has time to do that? And, every voting tax payer needs to do this! Without an easy-to-use centralized database, the right thing cannot happen.

The tax paying people have a right to know clearly what is going on in our government, and to a limited degree they can find out today. But the information is not collected in a central location, and there is no way to navigate the data easily. There's way too much disorganization and over-detail in some areas, with insufficient detail in other areas.

Proper data studies can lead to knowledge about how our tax money is being spent today, and this knowledge ultimately leads to the right use of money in the future. If a government agency is wasting money and I can't discover that because the information they're providing is too convoluted, incomplete and confusing, then the waste continues. If they have to provide all their spending in a clear chart for me to read, breaking everything down from large to small in a hierarchical tree of spending that I can easily navigate, I will see where they're wasting money, and I can call them on it - and work with them to reduce the waste.

There is always some waste in any system; I want to feel confident that we're keeping it at a minimum.

Shine the light anew, and the cockroaches will flee the area.

Data Visualization - A Good Solution

One way to make this information available is to show the first level breakdown of where our tax dollars go - how much goes to which overarching organizations within the country, during the past year or so. 5 or 6 top level bullets, with money that adds up to the total taken in by the IRS for that time period. It should be obvious that the numbers add up, and what the levels mean.

From there, the tax payer should be able to drill down - click on one organization to "open it"and see where all of its money is going, within its categories. Similarly, each category can be "opened" to see all the sub-categories of monetary expenditure. At each level, a clear English description should be given of what the money was spent on. If it can't be expressed clearly and simply, it should not have been spent in the first place. Again, the numbers all add up in this area, to the total in the level above.

The data should also have the ability for anybody to attach comments, at any level, to any piece of data or organization - a threaded discussion. Government officials post here to clarify any confusion or answer questions from tax payers about certain parts of the spending for that year. This meta-data would help future visitors to that part of the database, to reduce the number of redundant questions and confusion a specific piece of data could cause.

All data from all organizations needs to be regularly collected and fed to a central "public Internet server," and made available via a hierarchical viewer, as well as pure data feeds in a variety of formats: CSV (Excel), RSS (subscription), XML data dump, perhaps OData, and other formats that make sense. This can be automated, so it doesn't take much human work to keep the data flowing month after month, year after year.


It's time for our government to stop pretending incompetence, to stop staying behind the times. Computers are cheap and ubiquitous, as are databases and file systems with massive redundancy. The same for large-scale Internet access.

At any time any tax payer could access this database, and see where money really is being spent - what things are really being accomplished. This is when creativity kicks in - if we're doing X, why aren't we also doing Y? Are we spending too much/too little on Z? Why is organization A spending money on the same thing as organization B? Maybe it's right, or wrong; people can find out, contact those organizations, learn something, and update the comments in the database.

The direction of our country should be steerable by the people, at least to a certain extent. How can you do that when you can't tell what is actually being done, and how much money is spent each year doing it?


We need a Government database of spending, in tree-form, for us to play with.
I wanna explore, hate and love, what I find in it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

"At any time any tax payer could access this database, and see where money really is being spent - what things are really being accomplished." --
That is the question. What really is being accomplished? Our money being used for something less useful than it could be. Thanks for this good post.

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