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Steve Ballmer on Using Data to Tell Government's Story

The former Microsoft CEO wants Americans to have a clear picture of how government collects and spends their money -- and what they get in return.

Ballmer NGA
Steve Ballmer discussed his USAFacts initiative with state leaders gathered at the National Governors Association last summer.
(AP/Stephan Savoia)
A few years ago, Steve Ballmer began to take an interest in the world of government data. The former Microsoft CEO -- whose estimated net worth is just shy of $38 billion -- and his wife Connie wanted to be more deeply involved in philanthropy, and Ballmer wanted to know what government did with the money it raised. Where did it go, who did it serve and what outcomes did it get?

He quickly discovered that such basic questions were hard to answer. So Ballmer set out to change that.

The result of his efforts is USAFacts, a comprehensive website that Freakonomics Radio called “a sort of fiscal colonoscopy of the American government.” The initiative includes economists and researchers and partners like the Penn Wharton Budget Model from the University of Pennsylvania, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and Lynchburg College

Last week, USAFacts released its second annual report, which is packed with colorful graphs, pie charts and other data visualizations based on more than 30 years of federal, state and local government spending data. In a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Ballmer sees the website as a critical tool for strengthening democracy via timely, digestible and objective information.

Since its inception, USAFacts has committed to compiling data from all levels of U.S. government because, Ballmer says, that’s the only way to tell the full story of public spending. Take roads, for example.

“Why would I care what my town or my state spends on roads when most roads are a combination of state, municipal, maybe county, plus federal money? That’s what’s building our roads and bridges,” he says. “If you just look at the contribution that comes from any one entity, you’re not really seeing the full resources being applied to the problem.”

Ballmer will speak about USAFacts and the use of data to inform democracy at the Government Performance and Innovation Summit in Los Angeles on May 1.

The event, which is hosted by Governing, will feature a mix of innovators and civic entrepreneurs from the public and private sectors. In addition to Ballmer's keynote address, the program includes big-city mayors, chief data officers, chief information officers and other practitioners who incorporate data and evidence into public service. 

The data that appear on USAFacts were already publicly available but not in a single, reader-friendly package that shows long-term trends. For government officials, many of the key data points may be familiar, especially within a given field.

Police won’t be surprised to learn, for example, that the nation’s annual violent crime rate has steadily declined since 1991 or that suicide gun deaths are far more common than homicide gun deaths. But for the average citizen, the slickly produced report provides a single place to get a comprehensive portrait of public spending and big-picture policy outcomes.

Creating a single document with well-organized information from a long list of federal, state and local agencies is no small feat, says Richard Coffin, director of USAFacts.

“It took us two years to pull all this data together, and it was all publicly available. This was all stuff we basically scraped off websites,” he says.

Simple questions were difficult to answer without the help of the government specialists who were brought on to manage the data. For example, how many veterans are in the United States?

The Department of Veterans Affairs provides three different figures. Coffin’s team had to figure out which was the best measure to use. (It's 20.3 million as of 2016, down from 24.3 million in 2005.) 

“Most people don’t have two years at their disposal to answer these questions,” Coffin says. “We want to give people a headstart in doing that.”

The financial data that states and localities produce -- often in PDF form -- is particularly difficult to collect and interpret, says Thomas Cafcas, a senior analyst with USAFacts.

“The way that state and local governments keep their financial data is astounding, just the complexity of it and how different they can be. Making sense of all of that is no easy or simple task,” he says.

Even open data portals, which ostensibly serve the purpose of empowering citizens with information, can be surprisingly challenging for the layperson to use, Cafcas says.

“Oftentimes these portals aren’t keeping an eye towards the big picture. They just overwhelm users with a wild torrent of data that is less contextualized than what we’re trying to do,” he says.

While state and local spending data are in the 2017 and 2018 annual reports, Coffin says USAFacts will eventually provide a more detailed portrait of spending and outcomes at the state and local level. The hope is that the website will one day enable citizens to know how much the government spends in their town, county or state on whatever policy area interests them.

"We're really interested in this idea of government, as a whole, spends $5.7 trillion. You can look at it as $5.7 trillion in one country, or you can look at $5.7 trillion divided up over 50 states, plus D.C. and U.S. territories. Or you can look at it as divided up into 3,000 counties, or 12,000 school districts," Coffin says. "We're trying to show people how the full spending gets to different places and how outcomes -- college degrees, dropout rates, crime rates, anything you can think of aggregated in long form -- look in these different geographies as well." 

The current report does include some interesting non-federal statistics. Of the 23.3 million government workers, about 83 percent work at the state or local level. About 11 million are in education. In 2015, the states that spent the most were California, New York and Texas. The states that spent the least were Vermont, Wyoming and South Dakota. Collectively, states spent about $72 billion more than they raised in revenue in 2015, but in seven of the previous 10 years, they had an annual net surplus. 

This story has been updated to correct the name of a senior analyst with USA Facts. His name is Thomas Cafcas, not Thomas Cafcan. 

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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