As the keynote speaker at a recent conference of the International Consortium on Government Financial Management held in Washington DC, I had the opportunity to discuss with representatives from over 40 countries one of the primary challenges facing governments around the world – citizen engagement.
My remarks emphasized that recent populist movements should be a wake up call to everyone involved in government – including those in the budgeting and finance communities – on the need to turn citizen cynicism into engagement and buy-in.
The growing availability of technology and data should be enabling a highly informed citizenry (i.e., voters) armed with actionable information. Moving beyond tired factory-like mindsets where government financial staff spend their days grinding out reports, preparing audit remediation plans and manually executing budgets, a modern approach enables technology to drive iterative, customer-focused engagement and creates and marshals electronic resources.
To riff off Tip O’Neill’s famous line, all government is local – especially in interacting with the citizens we’re trying to serve. And based on a review of how governments are interacting with citizens, local governments are doing a commendable job. (Some notable examples can be found at https://whatworkscities.bloomberg.org.) Unfortunately, such efforts to engage citizens are uneven and tend to become less relevant at higher levels of government.
For example, while President Obama deserves kudos for delivering on one of his early State of the Union Address promises to allow American taxpayers to go online and see exactly how their federal tax dollars are spent, the initiative didn’t reach nearly as many taxpayers as it could have. The intent of the initial idea for a taxpayer receipt, pioneered by the New York City Independent Budget Office, was to provide taxpayers with a physical validation of taxes paid – either in paper or email form – along with a breakdown of how a filer’s income taxes are spent, in actual dollars and cents. Unfortunately, the online tool unveiled by the White House missed in reaching its potential because taxpayers have to do something to get the information rather than getting it without asking.
Which brings up the matter of pushing out information to the public (or at least making it readily available in useful forms) versus allowing citizens to pull the data they need: we need to push more, pull less. Nevertheless, U.S. agencies are soon expected to roll out solutions arising from the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act) in an attempt to enlighten taxpayers with the mother lode of government spending data. It’s far from clear, however, that we’ll end up with the kind of transparency that matters most.
There’s a big difference between data transparency and useful information. Rather than flooding cyberspace with data, maybe we should be thinking more strategically about how best to provide information to taxpayers. Government data requires context for it to be clear; spending data in a vacuum does anything but clarify purpose. Does having terabytes of data at our fingertips really help us understand government better?
Let’s imagine for a moment the types of information a citizen would find most useful. It’d be great to log onto a website (the MyGov.US domain is available) and immediately have access to government data that matters most. Maybe something akin to an online bank or retailer – where citizens could have immediate, centralized access to their “accounts” – items such as Social Security retirement information, status of tax refunds, student loans, veterans’ benefits, natural disaster or civil alerts and anything else of high interest.
With support from Clarifire, a business process automation firm, we’ve worked up an illustration of how a clearinghouse of citizen-relevant information might work. Simply fill out an initial setup screen and generate a dashboard that could serve as a citizen’s government homepage, with ready access to real-time information on matters of greatest importance to that individual.
Such an initiative might seem like a far-off fantasy to some observers of the US government given the interagency cooperation and data sharing required – but it’s not. A similar tool has already been rolled out in Australia (My.Gov.AU) as proof this concept can work.
Relatedly, the incoming Trump Administration will need to appoint 18 Senate-confirmed individuals to serve as CFOs at the largest federal agencies. To build citizen trust, why not repurpose those individuals as in-house taxpayer advocates? Such a move could be accompanied by a shift in staff comprising CFO offices: rather than tacticians, staff with high-powered analysts and data scientists who bring a dispassionate perspective to work as constant stewards of taxpayer dollars. Such voices within agencies are now rare as programs commonly capture staff. While it’s fine to be passionate about an agency’s mission, financial staff (at least) should be dispassionate about the programs and tools used to get there.
So where do we go from here? The government needs to do more to identify critical pieces of information the public wants to know, harmonize and integrate current efforts both horizontally (across agencies) and vertically (across levels), and focus more on a push mentality. We need to dismiss old ways of thinking and provide citizens with information that matters to them as members of a society that values knowledge, with technology and data as its basis. Within government, we need to end business as usual and engage.