Yesterday I attended the 2nd UK Government barcamp. It was a fantastic event which brought together civil servants and various parties concerned with the use of technology and the internet within government. The range of views expressed, and the desire for innovation and change within government was refreshing and intoxicating.
I led a session entitled “Show me the Money” and have outlined the story behind it below.
Transparency is the only show in town
The Memorandum on Transparency issued by President Obama upon his inauguration, commits his Administration to creating:
an unprecedented level of openness in Government.We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.
Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing. Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public. Executive departments and agencies should also solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.
Transparency provides a platform upon which Accountability and Trust can flourish. An active and participatory democracy dies behind closed doors. It lives and breathes within the context of an open and active civic society. Empowering the public to hold elected representatives to account requires providing easy open access to government information on a wide area of subjects.
One of the areas in which President Obama has been particular active as a senator is transparency of government spending. This is an area in which the UK needs to improve. The US provides interesting examples of what can be achieved through the work of nonprofits, legislation and collaboration between government and advocacy groups.
OMB Watch is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization formed to ‘lift the veil of secrecy’ shrouding the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In October 2006, they setup FedSpending.org, a free searchable database of federal government spending.
The data for FedSpending.org is largely from two sources:
- the Federal Procurement Data System, which contains information about federal contracts, and
- the Federal Assistance Award Data System, which contains information about federal financial assistance such as grants, loans, insurance, and direct subsidies like Social Security.
The rational for the site was to make government spending more transparent, allowing citizens to hold elected officials accountable for expenditure against national priorities. It’s aim was to foster greater accountability within government, and provide a means for the public to investigate all kinds of expenditure from different agencies. At the time of the launch OMB Watch’s Executive Director Gary Bass said:
“The American people have been largely in the dark about to whom and where their tax dollars go…With FedSpending.org, we believe that will change. When you buy something at the store, you get a receipt. FedSpending.org is that receipt for government spending—we can examine it and see just what kind of deal we’re getting.”
The site now contains over $18.7 trillion in federal spending dating back to FY 2000, and has been very successful with a total of over 10 million searches, and approximately 400,000 unique visitors each month.
Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006
This act was introduced by Senator. Tom Coburn and Barack Obama in April 2006. The bill required the Office of Management and Budget to create a searchable online database of all governments contracts and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on September 26, 2006.
The rational behind the act was to make both the executive branch and Congress accountable for their spending decisions by allowing regular taxpayers to follow the money. The act mandated OMB to develop and maintain a site providing grant and contract information on all organizations receiving more than $25,000 from the federal government. The site was required to be up and running before 1st January 2008.
OMB Watch, however, launched fedspending.org in October 2006, providing an example of what OMB was required to create. Fedspending.org provided the spending details required within the Accountability and Transparency Act. Given this, Gary Bass (Executive Director of OMB Watch) wrote to Robert Shea (Associate of OMB) offering to share the watchdog group’s experience in setting up its site. OMB Watch offered OMB the technology behind the site for free, but OMB could not accept this. Instead the budget office set up competitive bidding for the job.
The Washington Post outlines how OMB Watch won the competitive tender to provide the technology for the site. They were paid $600,000 for the software and worked with OMB to improve it.
USASpending.gov was setup in December 2007 to meet the requirements of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. The site is fully searchable and accessible by the public for free, and includes for each federal award:
1. The name of the entity receiving the award;
2. The amount of the award;
3. Information on the award including transaction type, funding agency, etc;
4. The location of the entity receiving the award; and
5. A unique identifier of the entity receiving the award.
USASpending is very similar to FedSpending with some areas, such as the examples in the documentation, almost identical. The collaboration between OMB and OMB Watch (an organization devoted to investigating and scrutinizing the operations of OMB) is a fascinating example of how the objectives of government can be achieved more efficiently through working and collaborating with non-profits/advocacy groups. Both the Fedspending and USASpending sites are very similar as they essential do the same job i.e. to provide details of government grants and contracts.
The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 has had a legacy far beyond that of USASpending.gov. Ellen Miller outlines how this legislation has impacted individual states and made the reporting of spending much more open and transparent. Such transparency is exemplified by Open Book New York and other state initiatives:
Since 2007, 11 states (Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Washington) have established, via legislation or executive order, free and searchable Web sites that give access to state spending. And 24 other states are working on it, with more than half introducing spending transparency bills this year. B2G Exchange blog wrote in May that transparency Web sites were the “hottest new trend” in state government.
This bill also had a legacy for the UK. It inspired the Government Spending (Website) bill in 2006 which required the UK Treasury to create :
a publicly searchable website containing information about expenditure by all government departments and executive agencies.
The bill was debated in the Lords with much debate referencing the US legislation. Baroness Noakes said of the bill:
Transparency is a weapon in the war to win value for money, and the Bill is designed to improve transparency about government spending, thereby contributing to a climate of openness and debate. Poor value for money should have nowhere to hide.
It was disappointing that the Government Spending (Website) bill did not become law. Had this legislation been enacted the UK could have a UKspending.gov site providing details of all government contracts and grants.
Where the UK has been inactive in this area the US has continued to push for greater transparency in government spending. A new bill has was introduced last year to strengthen the Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act. Gautham Nagesh blogs at Nextgov on how the bill will
require agencies to submit requests for proposals and contract information for posting on USASpending.gov to the site, allowing citizens to compare what the government asked for to what it purchased.
It would require the site to record “performance data on the contract and disclose additional information on the entities that receive federal awards.” The bill also calls for a better search capability and requires data to be offered in XML or other “machine-readable format.” Along with this it will require that agencies show that entities granted awards or contracts don’t owe taxes.
If this bill passes and becomes law then USASpending.gov will become an even greater source of transparency and openness in the area of federal spending. It will bring greater disclosure of contract specifics over and above what is currently available.
The discussion at yesterday’s barcamp focused on what steps we could take to try to inject more openness and transparency into UK government spending. The topics discussed included:
- Whether it would be feasible to try to bring back this Government spending bill, or create a similar bill to providing for a government spending site, or at least the release of data e.g. such as that provided for by the US Federal Procurement Data System.
- Could we get the data ourselves? There are various Freedom of Information spending requests available on whatdotheyknow.com e.g. Spending on Microsoft Office, so perhaps we could submit requests against various vendors. We could slowly build up a profile of government spending with large vendors.
- Could we start with ‘bailout’ spending in the UK i.e. create a website to show the money spent on purchasing shares in Lloyds TSB, Royal Bank of Scotland etc? The objective would be to create a database, such as that provided on Subsidyscope, for the UK.
The discussion was informative and will hopefully lead to something concrete in the near future. What is certain, however, is that only a transparent government can be truly accountable and responsive to its citizens. The open availability of government spending information in the US is a model to which the UK should aspire. How we’ll get there is uncertain, but the clamor for this kind of information is sure to get louder especially in these economically volatile times.