More transparency in the Federal budget

The reforms, jointly known as ‘Operation Sunlight’ (more here on the Department of Finance website) will extend the first steps taken in the 2008-09 budget to enforce meaningful ‘Program Budget Statements’ with details of performance indicators. From this year on, agencies will be required to set targets for their results and for performance in the current and future years.

The overall objectives of the reforms is to

  1. Tighten the outcomes and outputs framework;
  2. Change the content and structure of Budget Papers to improve their readability and usefulness;
  3. Improve the transparency of agency estimates;
  4. Expand the reporting of budget programs;
  5. Improve inter-generational reporting; and
  6. Improve the financial framework for estimates and audit.

But Andrew Murray made a number of other recommendations, too, about publishing the data and updates and variations to estimates that are not being given the prominence that I think they deserve.

In particular, he recommended that new information during the budget year, including changes to estimates, be published in a way that would allow the taxpayers to understand what was being done with their money after it was appropriated in the budget. He thought this could be done by each agency on its website. But, obviously, a single place for that sort of documentation would be still better. Finance or Treasury, Murray recommended.

But the Department of Treasury’s website makes it quite clear that—however much lip-service it pays the idea—Treasury has little time for transparency or publication. You can find publications on their horrible website if you’re diligent and patient—there’s a keyword search. But don’t expect any further help from them. They’re too miserly either with information or with expenditure on web design (or both) to want to help. And they don’t care if you know it. Everything is an unadorned list with little attempt to provide even basic metadata about publications. Hard to follow, poorly presented, poor in data (as opposed to documents) too, as far as I can tell.

The Department of Finance does a much better job of web publication. But it’s still a confusing place with no obvious way for the public to access even basic budget information on an agency or program basis: the main menu has twenty or more items each of which expands to still more submeus of items.

Recovery.gov website

Here’s what a real information repository on public expenditure looks like. It not only looks better and it works better than the difficult, uninformative Treasury website. It conveys information that the taxpayers should have as their right. It aggregates relevant information from US Federal agencies. It provides rich meta-information to guide the user’s choices. It is up-to-date and, as I’ve observed before, stimulating.

It’s not just the USA, incidentally, that takes public access to financial reporting more seriously than we do. In Europe, the European Commissions’ Financial Transparency System website provides a database of the beneficiaries of EU expenditure. You can find out who got how much, when and for what anywhere in the 27 member countries of the European Union.

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