From MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy
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.
Read the full post at MIT Golub Center for Finance and Policy
Doug Criscitello is the Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Finance and Policy