RESEARCH & RESOURCES

Visibility: Seeing Is Believing in Government as in Business

As Louisiana legislators lobby for $250 billion in federal aid, the need for transparency into the distribution of those funds becomes ever more clear. The time has come for a Web-based performance dashboard to unravel the complexities and fiscal practices of government.

Editorial

By Eric Kavanagh

Everybody knows something. Every adult specializes in at least one field. When Usama bin Laden gave his last videotaped statement from a natural setting, he must have presumed that no one could figure out where he was. He was wrong. A geologist from the University of Nebraska at Omaha recognized the rock formations, alerted United States intelligence agencies, and suddenly we were hot on the trail of the world’s most wanted bad guy. Dr. Jack Shroder demonstrated that in the age of information, those who hide the truth should beware.

We all know the story of government double-talk, politicians who say one thing, do something else. We’ve heard alarming tales of federal corruption covered up by such falsehoods: toilets that cost thousands of dollars; phantom programs that line the pockets of clever conspirators; capital projects designed largely to enrich those with inside information. While such chicanery will never be eradicated, few in Washington or elsewhere would argue that mitigation of this money-mischief would not do wonders for the economy and all who contribute to it.

The question, as always: How? What can be done to crack a window into this world of waste? An Alabama audio engineer once passed on the wisdom of his father, who would often caution his son: “You cannot rely on the unreliable.” Though tautological in nature, that statement speaks volumes about the importance of knowing when a system is broken, and accepting the hard reality that it must be fixed. In this case, the problem is obviously too big for politicians and bureaucrats to handle on their own. Concerned citizens must actively participate.

Just ten years ago, such a plebeian movement would have been all but impossible. Even with the much ballyhooed Freedom of Information Act, gaining visibility into governmental processes has been more difficult than… well, getting an Act of Congress. Reams of paper heavier than two World Trade Center towers have concealed the reality of governmental procedures like a blizzard of snow covering a landfill: citizens have become snow-blind by the dizzying fluorescent light dancing off the seemingly endless paper trail. And if one cannot see, how can one see waste?

The good news is that times have changed: this is the Internet epoch. Suddenly, information that was once hidden in dusty file cabinets thousands of miles away, can now be viewed from almost anywhere on earth via a few barely audible clicks of a mouse. The Information Age has arrived, and its impact continues to pound, pressure and improve industries and individuals alike. Banks, insurance companies, hospitals, motorcycle clubs—all can share information quickly and efficiently, at an almost negligible cost.

Transparency Via the Web

What this means for government is that every check the feds cut—with the exception of entitlement and top-secret programs—should be visible online, just as consumers can now see their own canceled checks via the Web. Seeing is believing; and when Americans everywhere can see all those checks from their laptops, it’s fair to say that bureaucrats and contractors alike will be on their best (or at least better) behavior.

Furthermore, since the Internet is interactive, each one of those government checks should be linked in succession: to the purchase orders that authorized them, the contracts that generated those purchase orders, the approved proposals that led to the contracts, the losing proposals that were also considered, the requests for proposal that solicited all relevant proposals, the allocations which authorized expenditures, the bills that set in motion the allocations, who voted which way on each, who failed to vote (a highlight on these derelicts), and the processes by which those bills became law.

While that might sound incredibly complex, the truth is that technology today is so advanced, computers so fast, software so powerful, methodologies so polished and practiced, that accomplishing this system could be done inside of two years. In fact, templates already exist throughout the chambers of corporate America, in large part due to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (developed in response to the shenanigans of Enron). And if public corporations must answer to the government, shouldn’t the government answer to the public? What’s good for the goose…

Power of the People

Obviously, a public-private partnership will be crucial, as politicians likely won’t engage in such a comprehensive process of revelation without significant encouragement. This is where citizens come into play. Once the system is online, each and every taxpayer can log in to access this wealth of information, thus becoming a citizen auditor. They can check numbers, read reports, verify the accuracy of data, watch for over-payments, ensure that projects are accomplished on time and within budget. Moreover, they can watchdog specific expenditures. This is where the power of many takes hold.

Remember: everybody knows something. A carpenter in Topeka, Kansas knows that a certain type of nail only costs so much; an insurance agent in New York, New York knows actuary tables like the back of his hand; a professor in Seattle, Washington has spent her entire career mastering the complexities of governmental procurement processes. When these concerned citizens log in, they will surely gravitate toward government projects related to their areas of expertise; and the Web search techniques that surfers continue to master daily will greatly facilitate the process.

Here’s where the game gets fun. Whenever a citizen auditor finds something amiss, they report it via an automated system. If what they report turns out to be an actual mistake, then their ranking elevates one level, such that anything they report in the future will be reviewed more quickly than reports by auditors with lower rankings; conversely, any time a person reports something that is really their own mistake, their ranking goes down one level. Ultimately, great auditors will get hired; really bad ones essentially fired.

Of course, opening up such a massive can of worms will certainly lead to many false alarms, but once again: technology can steer us in the right direction. For example, Web tracking data can be used to ascertain which citizen auditors are most likely to have found actual problems: someone who has only been logged into the system once for 10 minutes before raising a red flag will be less likely to have found an actual error or case of fraud, than someone who spent hours at a time for multiple sessions before finally crying wolf.

A Technological Solution

As with any technical project, there are many more ways than one to skin this cat. Following is just an example based upon knowledge of the technologies and methodologies available today:

The ideal scenario would involve tapping directly into federal systems to help ensure the accuracy of data. Systems that track purchase orders and invoices will be paramount such that funds allocated can be reconciled with those actually paid. Whatever coding methodologies are used by the government to track which monies go to various projects will need to be analyzed, and perhaps augmented with a layer of master data that can be used to integrate complementary information on contractors, employees, affected communities and other data.

A primary concern is security: obviously, it would be detrimental should the wrong people gain access to these federal systems. This hurdle can be easily jumped by injecting an offline process. Instead of electronically connecting the front and back ends of this solution, federal employees can extract data from their systems nightly, then burn the data to CDs which will then be shipped off-site to a secure location—perhaps even across the country—where the data would then be uploaded each morning.

With a proper data model in place, the bounty of federal information can be aggregated into a data warehouse, upon which various analysis (OLAP) cubes can be built. A multidimensional database will be crucial as citizen auditors will doubtless want to analyze the data from all manner of perspectives. Once the array of cubes are in place, the visualization component comes into play and an effective performance dashboard can be placed on top. Then, citizens everywhere can begin to pore.

Meanwhile, a layer of data mining technology coupled with hard-coded and even dynamic business rules can continuously troll for potential fraud (just as credit card companies do quite effectively today), as well as conflicts of interest. Paid auditors would therefore need not comb through entire haystacks for needles; but would instead receive daily emails via messaging systems, alerting them to possible wrongdoing.

Should those in power stonewall this process, the Freedom of Information Act could be used as a last resort to secure the necessary documentation, but the workload would multiply significantly; as would the potential for human error. But, where there’s a will, there is most certainly a way.

What’s Holding Us Back?

Perhaps the biggest hurdle right now is old-fashioned ignorance: many citizens and politicians simply don’t know that this type of solution is possible. Or, they fear that it would cost too much money. But with the billions of dollars being bandied around in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, there’s no time like the present. And when one considers the history of Louisiana politics, it’s clear that this solution is a no-brainer.

Of those who know this solution can happen, many don’t want it to become reality because it would deprive them of the sharpest arrows in their quiver: manipulation of reasonable doubt via outright allegations and/or insidious innuendo. After all, if no one can independently verify the truth, who’s to say who’s lying? Anyone who pays even a modicum of attention to politics knows that the age-old process of he-said, she-said will get us nowhere. However, once citizens across this great nation can independently verify what’s true, then we’re dealing with nothing short of a classic sea change.

A system of this nature would simultaneously accomplish multiple goals:

  • trust in government would rise due to clear visibility into where money goes and how the federal system operates;
  • truckloads of money would be saved due to greatly limited waste;
  • people within the halls of government would learn much more about their own areas of specialty, thanks to input from citizen experts everywhere;
  • government fraud would be much more difficult to accomplish due to millions of eyes poring over contracts day in and day out, year after year;
  • citizens would learn so much about how governmental processes work, specifically in the area of financial allocations and project execution.

What are the biggest issues facing government today? Lack of trust by the public, excessive waste, inefficient processes, fraud, and lack of understanding by citizens, politicians and bureaucrats… did we miss anything?

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