Making government “transparent” is in vogue in 2009, whether by doing map mashups of crimes or twittering by Mayors and public agencies. But I often wonder if we’re exposing the trees, without showing the forest or illuminating the true ecosystems of governing.
I’ll cite one thorny problem which (we hope) is somewhat susceptible to new, web 2.0 transparency tools such as data feeds, mashups, and social media: exposing government budgets for public scrutiny.
Google has a service for “making government transparent” usgov.google.com although I can’t tell the difference between this site and a normal Google search except only Government sites are returned.
The King County (Seattle) government recently passed a measure calling for each agency to publish a line-item budget. This law isn’t exactly news, of course.
I’ve heard rumors of governments showing all their financial management transactions on the web, so anyone can see every payment made by the government. Some large cities now expose detailed crime statistics – right down to the 100 block of where the crime occurred. Others make restaurant health inspections, building permits, and a wide variety of other such detailed data available.
So I’d say we’re starting to get adept at exposing the trees – or maybe the branches, twigs, leaves, owls, squirrels, nuts and bark of government operations. But what does all this data mean, and how can it influence government behavior, budgeting and public policy choices?
Jonathan Walters, in a recent Governing column, talked about the ongoing attempts to link budgets to performance measures and results. As Walters states “This isn’t about looking for fluff in budgets, for waste. We’re already efficient. The question is, are we efficient at the right things?”
Ideally, we’d be able cleanly link all the inputs, processes, outputs and costs.
For example, we might know the Metropolis city transportation department filled 10,000 potholes in 2008. And they had four pothole-filling crews, each with four workers and a truck. We could gather a lot of data about costs, wages, time-to-fill, and so forth. Even so, there are a lot of variables, such as the simple fact that due to weather, pothole-filling crews can’t work every day, or some days those crews need to be doing snow-plowing or sidewalk construction. And then there’s the factor of executive policy direction. Every Mayor knows that it is relatively easy to get more potholes filled quickly – you just divert staffpower from building sidewalks or maintaining bridges to the more visible task of pouring asphalt into holes. But is that the right long-term public policy choice for Metropolis, or any city government?
The problem only gets thornier when we start talking about crime: how many cops do you have to hire to reduce auto thefts by 10%? That question is non-sensical on many levels.
And even thornier when we discuss choices – should we hire more cops or school teachers or put more money into public health or homeless shelters? Choices get even worse in times like 2009 where we are making decisions about what to cut. And notice I haven’t even talked about investments in technology or software systems versus any of those other choices.
We – government – complicate this all through little tricks such as “holding positions vacant”. A department’s official budget might show 500 full-time employees, but as a matter of fact the department might intentionally keep 25 or 40 positions vacant and then using the salary savings for other purposes. At least one quite large City of Seattle department has zero dollars for replacing its desktop computers and funds them through this method. But it is a widespread practice, as recently noted by Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene in Governing.
So is it time to despair on performance measures and data-driven governing? Hardly.
Traditionally, the analysis of this data has fallen to finance staff in government departments, or to employees in offices with names like the “office of management and budget” or the “budget office”. Even in the largest cities or counties, only a few dozen people actually did the analysis which informed elected officials who make policy choices.
Today, with databases and the Internet and the world-wide-web, and the advent of tools like mash-ups and Excel spreadsheets, all of this raw data can be exposed to hundreds or thousands of people who are interested in doing the analysis – on their own time with their own computers in their own homes.
Will they make mistakes? Sure. Will there be people who latch onto the data only to cast it in the worst possible light to impugn the elected officials currently running any given government? You bet.
But they’ll also ask a ton of questions, such as how pothole-clearing crews are allocated and what those crews are doing during snowstorms. Overall, people will gain a better understanding of how government works and of the management, processes and costs involved in running a government agency.
They undoubtedly will come up with suggestions for improvement.
And, who knows, in many cases they might even conclude many government programs are, indeed, operating as efficiently and effectively as possible!
Will government ever be “fully transparent”? Probably not, but as we get more and more translucent, we’ll shed more light on the problems of governing.