It is only a matter of time before Americans will be able to see in real-time how money is spent and what results are achieved with the investment of tax dollars in programs at all levels of our government.
This will become the new paradigm replacing what scholars have referred to as "the bureaucratic state" offering citizens greater knowledge and involvement in the myriad of programs designed to improve their quality of life.
It will also mean that government will be more effective and efficient.
Progress will no longer be simply measured by the amount of money being spent, followed by elected officials asking for dated program statistics or studies that become unusable before the ink of the written conclusions are dry. Under the new paradigm, elected leaders will have the tools to go 'outside the checkbook' and see visual analytic dashboards giving them real-time information on programmatic success and failure (which will mean program correction or elimination).
State and local government are leading this effort. Forty-five states currently have some form of transparency. Nearly all can be described as "disclosure" sites offering their citizens endless lists of expenses. These lists are a good first step, often hundreds if not thousands of pages long, but remain difficult for the average citizen to comprehend, understand or determine if the expenditure is appropriate and prudent.
Problems with Transparency 1.0 remain. Exhaustive research revealed just a few of the challenges:
No state currently lists the approved budget along with the list of expenses by department or agency. This offers no ability way to see how spending is progressing. Elected officials and their citizens cannot see whether the spending is above, below or in line with budget constraints.
Too many states bury transparency links deep into the state's main web site rather than being on the front page for easy citizen access.
Poor technology performance: Page load time should be less than a few seconds. Some state transparency sites take minutes to download and see data requested.
Data flaws, by accident or on purpose, affect some state sites. Detail for expenses is omitted, giving the viewer no context. Some do not provide financial transaction details. For other states, the data pool is shallow, limiting the ability to see performance trends over multiple years.
Performance measurement is often lacking. Just reporting on the amount spent does not mean the program or initiative has been successful or achieved desired results envisioned by legislators or statewide elected officials. There needs be a greater emphasis on results so both elected leaders and citizens can see the result of their investment of tax dollars.
Here is the great news. Technology now exists to allow the 93,000 units of state and local government to solve the issues referenced above and provides analytic dashboards for near real-time monitoring and status reports on program(s) progress. We could reference this as Transparency 4.0 (acceleration is exponentially occurring).
Cynical citizens may be thinking that "politicians won't want to be really transparent" because it is against their own interests. That is probably true for a few incumbent elected officials. But the vast majority of elected officials are increasingly seeing how harnessing the power of transparency can help them be better stewards of tax dollars, improve program effectiveness and help propel them into higher office - creating a personal incentive for the individual to fully embrace transparency and benefit from it. We are approaching a tipping point. Those elected officials who do not embrace transparency will appear as if they have something to hide, which makes for bad politics.
Transparency is not a partisan issue. While the country continues to define itself and be defined by political pundits as either "red" or "blue", the politics of transparency are not dominated by either party.
Republicans have an incentive to embrace transparency because it will lead to more efficient government and they will have something "new" to campaign on. Frankly, just talking about balanced budgets and tax cuts do not have the same voter impact they have had in the 1980s.
Democrats also have an incentive to embrace transparency because they cannot continue to be perceived as "spenders." Being able to demonstrate that programs are effective and solving problems takes away this powerful political issue Republicans and conservative talk radio bludgeon them with every day.
The path toward full transparency at all levels of government is inevitable. There are no longer technology constraints to its full implementation. But citizens can help accelerate its adoption by asking their elected officials "what are you really doing to be transparent" and supporting those individuals for elective office who are committed to real transparency and accountability.
Your state, county, city government and all of America will be better as a result.
Follow David K. Rehr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drehr