Beyond the Data Dump
Governments at all levels are finding better ways to provide fiscal transparency. But there's a lot more that they could do.
Since the federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966, transparency has become even more of a hot-button issue across the public sector. All 50 states and many local governments now have their own FOIA laws as well. But while these mandates for transparency enjoy broad support, agencies at all levels of government have limped along in their attempts to abide by them.
At first, governments utilized slow, expensive and inefficient paper-based processes to accommodate citizen and media requests. Everything changed with the advent of the information superhighway. By the mid 1990s, new amendments were written into FOIA that required governments to make certain types of records available electronically and, shortly after, transparency initiatives began migrating online. In this new tech-savvy arena, accessibility became the primary focus of fiscal transparency.
The 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama) required data to be presented in a searchable and intuitive format. Initially, agencies achieved this by compiling information into PDF files that, put bluntly, essentially served as virtual data dumps. Users could not sort or manipulate these static documents, and extensive manual effort was required to locate and extract specific data points.
Fortunately for today's engaged citizens, the public sector has begun to ditch its static PDF reporting methods. Dedicated open-data and checkbook portals that provide interactive repositories of public information are quickly becoming the norm. In just a few clicks, citizens can now slice and dice spending data, zeroing in quickly on just the comparative information they need, as the intuitive web portals for governments as disparate as Denver, New York State and Williamson County, Texas, demonstrate.
But while we have come a long way since the first Freedom of Information laws and the static data dump, there is still more work to be done. The next piece of the puzzle is communicating the relationship between dollars spent and outcomes achieved. In other words, governments need to show constituents the "why" and "how" behind spending decisions, giving citizens the opportunity to weigh in on such critical questions as whether the public sector is acting with integrity, efficiently using public resources, creating policies designed in the best interest of the population, and wisely spending tax dollars.
And there is more untapped potential. Today's open-data and transparency sites are about the after-the-fact sharing of information. In the future, cloud-based performance management systems can and should be used to drive proactive engagement between citizens and their governments by incorporating predictive analysis into the equation. Citizens need the ability to play out various "what if" scenarios involving budgetary decision-making.
This is the future of transparency: One where governments provide citizens with interactive, relevant, insightful -- and forward-looking -- performance-based transparency portals that open up a two-way street of feedback. It's an opportunity to not only engage citizens in the process of policymaking but also to rebuild their trust in their governments.
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VOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.
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