Government Spending Transparency: "Needs Improvement" Is Understatement


Start: 2011-12-14, Publication: 2011-12-15


Back in September, I rated Congress on how well it is publishing information about its deliberations and decisions. "Needs Improvement" was the understated theme. Now we're looking at the government's publication of data that reflects budgeting, appropriations, and spending. "Needs improvement" isn't just understated in this area. It's really, really understated. On the budgeting, appropriations, and spending transparency report card I'm putting out today, B+ is the best grade and it goes to just half of one subject area. There are 2.5 Cs, 3 Ds, and 4 incompletes. This area needs improvement. What is transparency, anyway? In my briefing paper, "Publication Practices for Transparent Government," I wrote about the publication practices that support transparency. They are: authority, availability, machine-discoverability, and machine-readability. That means putting good data out from a consistent source in sensible ways, and, especially, structuring the data so that computers can interpret it. You know what the World Wide Web is? It's a whole bunch of structured data. If you want the kind of breakthrough in transparency for government data that the Web was for communications, you want the data structured right. Our draft structure for data in this area is in our "Conceptual Data Model of the U.S. Federal Government Budgetary Process." (HTML version, Word version) Structured data doesn't really exist yet in the area of budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The one bright spot is the president's annual budget submission, which includes some information in a workable structure, but there is much room for improvement even there. Because I'm so nice, I've given a lot of "incompletes" where I could have, and some say should have, given Fs. Believe it or not, there is NO federal government "organization chart" that is published in a way computers can use. That's one of the building blocks of computerized oversight, and its absence is easily rectified. When we return to these issues in the summer or fall of next year, and review more formally how Congress and the administration have done on transparency, I expect these things to be fixed. (Fear the blog post!)


Name:Owen Ambur


Name:Cato Institute



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