As millions of Americans rushed to beat the deadline to file their tax returns this week, policymakers on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue were engaged in a familiar and depressing ritual: a high-stakes game of “chicken” over the federal budget.
In a little over a week, the federal government could shut down for the second time in five years, with national parks closed, veterans’ benefits interrupted and the business of federal workers unnecessarily disrupted. It’s worth asking: rather than stumbling through just another partisan showdown over more or less spending, when will we have a smarter discussion about the important choices and investments needed to open more opportunities for all Americans?
Fortunately, we are one step closer to this better debate with the launch this week of USAFacts — an easy-to-access, easy-to-use tool that pulls together all federal, state, and local government data to tell the story of how we raise and spend our tax dollars, and what kind of return we get on our investment. The website just went live.
If we’re going to make better policy in America — and better decisions about how we invest taxpayers’ money to accelerate progress in meeting our nation’s challenges — we need better access to facts.
USAFacts is a welcome antidote to an era of post-truth politics — where fake news spreads virally on social media, when partisans go on TV asserting "alternative facts," and when the fact-checking website, PolitiFact, routinely gives our leaders "Pants on Fire" ratings for their claims.
At a time when consumers can order virtually any product as fast as you can say the words “Alexa,” “Siri” or “Cortana,” shouldn’t the public and policymakers have the same immediate access to the credible, nonpartisan information they need to make the best decisions about our country’s future?
The brainchild of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, USAFacts is an exceedingly rare thing in today's political climate — it is has no ideological agenda beyond the fundamental belief that we make better choices when we have all the facts. His goal is to provide information that is reliable, easy to understand and put in a broader context - because, as he explains, “if you’re going to attack any problem, you’ve got to see the playing field overall.”
All the data on the site is from respected government sources — like the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics — not interest groups. This treasure trove of numbers is often buried deep in government reports and databases, but USAFacts gathers them all in one place so that researchers, lawmakers and taxpayers can quickly search and find what they need.
Ballmer came up with the idea after leaving Microsoft in 2014, when he was weighing how to use his philanthropy, the Ballmer Group, to make a difference in the lives of children and families. He knew that the federal government is by far the biggest investor in solutions to social problems - with the most experience and the most resources to tackle big challenges. But he also recognized that government can only be effective if policymakers and the public have answers to a few key questions: How much money are we raising and from whom? How are we spending it? Is it making a difference?
USAFacts draws its inspiration from the 10-K forms companies are required to file each year with the Securities and Exchange Commission, providing detailed information about their financial performance. In addition to revenues and expenditures, the new website also includes available data on where we are on meeting government’s stated goals, so policymakers and taxpayers know if there is a gap between government dollars invested and progress in addressing a social need.
At Results for America, we believe that policymakers need to harness the power of data and evidence to solve the world's biggest challenges. We are seeing businesses, foundations, nonprofits and sports teams doing it. We are helping mayors in cities in red states and blue states do it. At the federal level, we have promoted early but promising efforts to use evidence to drive better results in education, workforce training and other areas.
To make smarter decisions about how we use public dollars, we need to do more to invest in building and using evidence. We need to keep data open and available to the public. We need to protect it from being politicized. We need to use it honestly — not just cherrypicking whatever supports our views — to help us invest in what works and repurpose what doesn’t. And we need to share this evidence and data as widely as possible so that from the White House to city hall to the voting booth, we are making informed choices.
"We don't try to take a position on any issue," Ballmer said recently in a TEDxPennsylvaniaAvenue talk in Washington, D.C. where he described his vision for USAFacts. "We want the facts, the numbers, so that when people go to take a position, they're taking a position well-grounded in the actual data."
If we want to make better policy in America — if we want to avoid government shutdowns and make progress on the great challenges facing this country — policymakers and their constituents need to use USAFacts to ensure that our choices are more often rooted in data, evidence and a focus on results.