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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