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Business Intelligence for the Masses? President Signs Transparency Act

You deserve to know where your tax dollars go, don’t you?


The nature of governance itself changed irrevocably last week, as the flood gates of information collapsed under the weight of a single pen. When President George W. Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, the Platonic ideal of Democracy experienced one of its greatest transformations since the days when Athens ruled the world.

At its core, government manages power. Knowledge, of course, is power; which explains why politicians guard information so closely. Once the recipe for a secret sauce gets out, the balance of power changes dramatically. That’s just what happened with enactment of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. At least, that’s what began to happen.

First Things First

Before we get too excited, let’s quickly consider a classic case of government opacity: the Soviet Union. Stateside, many in power expressed glee at the Cold War’s demise. A falling Berlin wall cemented the excitement, which ultimately unraveled the fabric of Soviet power. And yet, nearly two decades later, life in the former Soviet Bloc doesn’t quite resemble the rosy picture heralded (and imagined) by so many at the time. Reality eventually set in: Numbers may not lie, but people do.

Many are the veils that populate the mischief-maker’s mind. People are clever, but as Virginia Congressman Tom Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee reportedly said, “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.” The sun should thus shine right down to the roots of this transparency system. After all, what’s the point of opaque transparency? The system should practice what it preaches: its code must be open-source.

That should pose no serious difficulty, and this should be no great matter, for open-source now enjoys far more than a flicker of activity. From the operating system to the Web server, database software to the requisite reporting and analytic functionality, open-source technology has arrived in force. Tens of millions of downloads can’t be wrong—the concept is proven, the model tested, the direction tried and true. Some of the largest software corporations on earth completely embrace open-source these days, so there is no lack of legitimacy.

More to the point, a closed-source transparency system would violate the essence of its own charter. Just one secret at the heart of a system like this can nullify both its validity and the perception thereof; and when the goal is complete transparency, perception is just as important as reality. There are no shades of gray: the system is either transparent, or it’s not.

Functionality Key

Of equal import will be functionality. As described, the system mandated by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 will provide a searchable database of federal grants and contracts. Any decision-support specialist will tell you that knowing what to ask is half the battle. Queries represent just one component of a quality decision-support system.

This transparency system must also feature robust and dynamic reporting capabilities, such that citizen auditors can build customized reports according to their needs and interests. On-the-fly slicing and dicing of data will greatly facilitate usability of the system, and that will play a critical role in the value ultimately provided. For, no matter how powerful an application might be, it generates no value if nobody uses it.

Also key to usability will be data visualization. Analysts know from experience that large data sets quickly become incomprehensible without some effective means for viewing the data. The technology available today in this realm is extremely powerful. All sorts of capabilities are now possible with data visualization software—such functionality will be crucial for illuminating fraud and mistakes, as well as for triggering insights about patterns, trends and all manner of potential efficiency improvements.

Going open-source will yield yet another key benefit by fostering a massive community of developers. This will generate significant activity, and facilitate one of the central benefits of open-source development: by sharing all the code, this community will consist of giants standing on the shoulders of giants standing on the shoulders of giants, in near real-time. With so many eyes poring over the source code, efficiencies will occur exponentially.

A final essential ingredient: data quality. Enterprise consultants and CEOs alike know that in the data quality game, the closer you get to the source, the better. Somewhere in the halls of government today, there are operational systems that feed printers and/or online banking systems with the data needed to pay contractors and grant recipients. Capturing complete copies of those data streams will ensure the highest level of accuracy.

Ideally, scans of the canceled checks themselves should be viewable online, hyperlinked via their check numbers whenever referenced. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology could provide another layer of data cleansing. Integration and reconciliation of purchase order systems with fulfillment systems would also enforce integrity of the system: a computer is much more effective than any battalion of human beings at remembering which checks have been cut, and which have not.

(For more details on how a Citizen Auditor Web Service could work, check out this article in The Public Manager, Citizen Auditors: Web-Enabled, Open-Source Government.)

BI for the Masses

How will this system pave the way for pervasive BI? The theory is relatively simple: a rising tide lifts all boats, and with a system as broad-based and significant as this one, there will surely be new eyes and minds using it all the time. Provided that this Citizen Auditor Web Service employs the range and robustness of functionality here described, one definite byproduct will be a larger community of professionals growing proficient with decision-support systems.

Enterprise software and consulting salespeople will tell you that education is half the game in closing deals. When people don’t know what’s possible, it’s hard to sell them on a sophisticated system of any kind. When knowledge about a particular discipline is abundant, so is awareness of its value, and thus interest in its implementation and usage.

Add to this mixture the precipitous drop in price for such software (due in large part to the open-source movement, and all the various free applications available today), and you have a recipe for remarkable success. Recent acquisitions in this broadening industry make clear that all bets are off in the race to place decision-support functionality on every desktop. With hardware prices likewise dropping over time, the stage is set for the long-sought, much-predicted BI for the Masses.

Ultimately, as this Citizen Auditor Web Service grows and expands, we just might find ourselves with a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Timeline to Transparency

TDWI would like to extend thanks and appreciation to everyone who helped spread the word about the importance of transparency in government. We would especially like to thank Mark Tapscott, who, as a Director for the prestigious Heritage Foundation, helped our Project Visibility initiative achieve invaluable traction inside the Beltway. Kudos to the Blogosphere for making things happen in the Information Age! Anyone interested in helping shape this system should send an email to [email protected].

Following are some key links in the timeline to transparency:

An ‘Intelligent’ Recipe for the Rebirth of New Orleans

Visibility: Seeing is Believing in Government as in Business

Banks Give Their Customers Their Monthly Statements and Cancelled Checks Online. Why Can’t the Federal Government Do It For Taxpayers, Too?

Operation Offset: Best Way to Pay for Rebuilding the Gulf Coast?

March 2006
Citizen Auditors: Web-Enabled, Open-Source Government

About the Author

Eric Kavanagh is the president of Mobius Media, a strategic communications consultancy. You can contact the author at [email protected].

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