TCS Daily


Your Government Is Getting More Transparent. Why Not Take a Look?

By Eileen Norcross - February 22, 2007 12:00 AM

Every April 15 we pay the IRS, but it's in February when we first see how the government plans to spend it. Excepting analysts and interest groups, few will visit the Office of Management and Budget's website, or follow it through ten months of Congressional debate. But at $2.9 trillion (up by $1 trillion since 2001), we need to take notice.

Taxpayers' total fiscal exposure is now $50 trillion in Social Security and Medicare IOUs and debt. Units of measurement more fittingly used to describe galactic, rather than economic phenomena.

More Americans need to ask: "What are we buying?" Until recently, getting answers meant slogging through dense, obscure documents. Today, the government is making available more meaningful data, and technology is allowing us to share it in powerful ways.

The Transparency Act of 2006 promises a database of federal grants for public scrutiny. Search engines, such as Google, are indexing buried federal info. Plug the Office of Management and Budget's data into IBM's Many Eyes and visualize the federal budget as a Mondrianesque tree diagram. The president's proposed budget is compact and searchable. Check out the Department of Agriculture which spent $93 billion last year: $47 billion on Food Stamps, School Breakfast, Lunch and milk (the details are in the guts and fine-print Appendix). The Food and Nutrition Administration will spend $149 million and employ 1,194 people to administer the programs in 2008.

But pouring over the Appendix is like sightseeing by reading the phone book. It's where you go to pinpoint something. So we need to ask: Does the program work (at least according to OMB)?

Read the PART assessment - the Bush Administration's attempt at performance-based budgeting - for the Food Stamps program. It links budgets to program performance. It's deemed "moderately effective" according to OMB. In 2006, 64% of eligible people were served, and the payment error rate was 5.3%. Are diets improving and hunger being reduced? They are not sure. More studies are underway.

Through PART, we get a glimpse into Executive budget-making. The Major Savings and Reforms section shows what the administration wants to cut and why and you can compare this against a Master List of programs in the federal government - there are about 1000.

The process isn't quite this clear in Congress. If you want to know how much we spend on food safety and whether it is effective, you'll first discover budget categories don't match with real world questions. Is it under National Security, Agriculture, or Health and Well-Being?

After cheating via Google, I find food safety is on the Government Accountability Office's High-Risk List for 2007. It turns out that 15 agencies administer 30 food safety laws, spending $1.7 billion in 2003. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection program (eggs, poultry and meat) and the Food and Drug Administration (everything else) handle 90 percent of that. The Office of Management and Budget says these two programs are "adequate" and "moderately effective," respectively.

But the GAO isn't so sure. Fragmentation and poor coordination mean that USDA inspects open-faced ham and cheese sandwiches sold in interstate commerce every day. Put a piece of bread on top and that sandwich is in FDA's jurisdiction. They inspect those once every five years.

How do we allot funds to minimize risk? That's what Congressional oversight and authorizing committees are for. But which committees: Agriculture, Homeland Security or Health? Like the budget, Congressional committees aren't based on policy outcomes. The House considered Canadian beef in 2005; the Senate, food safety in 2006. How do they decide how much money goes to Agriculture's poultry inspectors, versus Commerce to safeguard fish stocks? Legislators do the only thing possible absent meaningful information: incrementally increase budgets based on last year's figures.

Does performance information figure into the final budget? Not that I can tell. Which is ironic since Congress requires agencies to produce the data. Agencies write reports, hearings are held but Appropriations remains a black box.

But transparency generates its own momentum. In February, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched The Open House Project to put more of Congress' business on the Web. The project hopes to make it easier for citizens to follow bills, debates and Congressional activities. They're looking for your input.

So get used to seeing trillion dollar budgets; but don't tune-out, log on. The internet changes expectations. It reveals, magnifies and links information in new ways. As more Americans blog the budget they will demand Congress link the best of intentions to tangible results.

Eileen Norcross is Senior Research Fellow in the Government Accountability Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia.


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10 Comments

They still try to hide the facts from us all

It not only is the so-called representatives we have from each state that are in Washington and are part of what is hid from the public. Yes,(not all reps of the afore said) are the same as said,but, many are.

Try getting some local info from different departments of the local or state branches of law or governing bodies and see what kind of action you get. Little of what you seek for.

From what I see now and in the past of the person who authored this topic, I admire Eileen Norcross as Senior Research Fellow in the Government Accountability Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and what she has taken on in this.
We should all get behind her and others like her in all states and not let the corrupt block their attempts and results in bringing out in the open what the public should already have access to but does not on what goes on in our, I said our government offices.

Then we need to take this info and use it let them in our State Capitals and in Washington know what we will put up with and what we will not put up with. But, it will take all of us on a united front.



The government has been this transparent for a long time.
Even Clinton’s Whitehouse posted budgets on the web. In fact, Clinton’s Whitehouse was much more progressive and aggressive at using the web than is Bush’s staff. On top of that, Bush's policies have effectively shut down much information that was previously available on the web, through various government agencies, and have lowered the reporting criteria of public sector entities, the great exception being school test scores.

So I guess I don't see things the way the author does on this. It is easy to show that since 2000, we are going backwards in terms of our ability to get information from the government agencies. This is particularly true with regards to EPA TIR and data sets from NOAA and NASA. What we find on the web now is a bunch of administration instruments that are all playing the same note.

We should have seen this coming when press releases from all the government started out with “President Bush has…”, like the one we got regarding the income tax refund back before the country started to go so far into debt.

Document Federal Domestic Spending by District
It makes sense to analyze the budget and spending for different federal government programs to ensure that they are effective and free of corruption but each program affects each congressional district differently. Some districts utilize programs like food stamps and some don't, some utilize farm subsidies and some don't. My concern is that some congressional districts receive much more money in federal domestic spending per capita than others.

This spending imbalance is sometimes due to having representatives with seniority that are on the powerful appropriation subcommitees or it may due to some representatives and constituencies that whine louder than others. A significant portion of domestic spending never makes it outside of the beltway. I do not believe that the people in Washington, D.C. are smarter than local people on the best solutions for a given congressional district and I do not think that there is a one-size-fits-all-solution for all 300 million U.S. citizens for any issue.

It is time to equalize per capita domestic spending to the congressional district and return spending authority and accountibility to each congressman. The Federal government spends $9000 per man, woman, and child ($2.7 Trillion Federal Budget / 300 million), the states are all at about $4000 per person, my local community spends about $2000 per person. The structure of government is upside down, most of the government services that are important to each of us are delivered at the local level so why tax and spend so much at the Federal level.

The answer is that many people think they are getting something for nothing from the Federal government and accountability for that spending is diffused (the blame is spread). To solve this situation the first step is to document how and where Federal Domestic spending is being spent. Maybe then people will realize that most citizens are not getting their share and maybe then they will work to do something about that.

Thanx,

Kevin

terrorism, transparency
The governments and leaders have never been and never will be transparent, and the war on terrorism is another scam to deflect from the Cheney and Baker and Bush families' multiple conflicts of interests in the Arab world, substance abuse problems, drunken driving problems, blood- thirsty and obscene execution and incarceration rates in Texas and elsewhere, and cover ups of the Pan Am bombing, the 9-11 massacre, Laura Welch's Donahue boyfriend murder/vehicular homicide, etc. and recent $60-70 Billion gouging for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and closing of CIA Office supposedly designed to catch OBL Dead or Alive.I was just on Catholics for Life to get nominated and elected US Congress 4th Federal District NY State on RTL and/or NY State Governor 2010 on RTL and/or Libertarian and Conservative Parties, and should be ASAP as I have always been transparent.

what matters
Great piece! It's most important for the public to access this information. Ideally, the voters can use the data to hold their elected officials accountable on election day. But until this connection is made, I fear politicans won't care so much about performance data (to the extent that reelection is a strong incentive).

Hi La-La land!
I didn't know news came out of there, but this is absolute proof it does!

My Government Getting More Transparent?
This dear lady needs to come up with a better joke than this one to pull wool over my eyes! One can only wonder if she gets paid by the present Administration to tell this joke, as others were paid for similar activitiies?

No you did not!!!
You did not put forth any info to relate that you went to any of the links in the story, to digest the info, to see if there was any merrits to this article.

Just started spounting off at the fire hydrant. Dont forget to raise you leg high enough.

Clever response, and your are basically right.
However, what I really meant to say is that America is no longer a Democracy but an ever more monster and corrupt Empire, where honesty and transperency is trumped by lying with numbers etc. If the Founding Fathers were to rise they would even have harshers words than the ones I just said! Don't come up with another clever answer in as much as this all I am going say! Yes, you may shoot an insult or two, which is your choice, or you may praise my conclusion. I may have a good laugh, either way! Lastly, thank you for responding in the first place; my comments aroused somebody from its American sleep?

sometimes Humor Bars helps
My last little small time punch line on the no you did not posting;

Was just some attempt at humor tossed in, not intended as an insult. To which it appears you did not take it out of context like some have in these postings. So give yourself a pat on the back for not being one of the ones that gets irritated to easy on these threads we post.

Humor Bars are also ice cream in some parts of the country or use to be. I have not looked for them in awhile.

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