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Rep. Darrell Issa: Technology is key to achieving 21st century transparency in government

Publication: The Washington Examiner

Rep. Darrell Issa
October 26, 2010

Americans know that their government spends too much on a complex, unmanageable bureaucracy. What they don’t know – because much of the raw data about government spending and performance is not accessible to them – is exactly how much waste, fraud, and abuse goes on every day. That has to change.

This year, federal expenditures passed $3.45 trillion, with a $1.29 trillion budget deficit adding to a national debt that has topped $13.6 trillion. The bureaucracy is composed of hundreds of agencies, institutes, and commissions, including 46 new ones created by health care reform and 13 by financial reform. Washington’s recent expansions are governed by a maze of thousand-page laws – pursuing goals that are sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, sometimes arbitrary, and sometimes obscure.

Yet information technologies already in use throughout the private sector can make it possible for Americans to track federal spending, regulation, and legislation. Better transparency will enable voters, media, and watchdog groups to hold the bureaucracy accountable.

Currently, however, federal agencies do not use consistent, compatible electronic data formats for financial, regulatory, and legislative information. If they did – and made it all public, searchable, sortable, and downloadable – anyone with Web access could scrutinize the federal budget, second-guess federal regulators, or navigate proposed laws and the U.S. Code with ease.

Data formats serve a simple purpose: electronically identify pieces of information so the pieces can be manipulated with software. They work by applying electronic tags, like bar codes at the grocery store, to every number in a financial statement, to every field in a form, or to each provision in a law. As long as the same set of electronic tags is used consistently, all the information becomes easily searchable, sortable, and downloadable.

First, consider Washington’s finances. The Government Accountability Office’s annual review of the federal government’s consolidated financial statements has never produced a clean audit opinion. Dozens of separate federal agencies use incompatible software systems and inconsistent accounting methods to report their financial results. If Washington were a publicly-traded company, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would investigate it.

Since the government cannot track its own finances, it cannot accurately report them to the public. Recently the Sunlight Foundation reported that USASpending.gov – which is supposed to list all federal grants and contracts – is only accurate 35 percent of the time.

If agencies used consistent data formats for their financial information, their financial reports could be electronically reconciled. It would be possible to trace funds from Congressional appropriations through agencies’ budgets to final use. The same data could flow automatically into USASpending.gov, without the errors and inconsistencies that make it unreliable today. Last December, the House passed bipartisan legislation to require federal agencies to adopt such formats for their internal financial information, but these measures are facing strong resistance from bureaucrats who oppose transparency.

Second, regulators collect information from private companies in dozens of areas, including corporate securities filings, food and drug disclosures, and environmental protection. They make this information public on their websites – but frequently in the form of PDFs or plain-text files that cannot be electronically compared, searched, or analyzed.

Imagine being able to instantly view a company’s separate filings with every regulator – and quantitatively compare its data to its competitors’. If regulators imposed consistent data formats for regulatory information, then watchdogs, bloggers, and the public could perform their own oversight, illuminating which regulatory systems are well-designed and which are too complex.

One innovative technology is a new data-tagging format, called Extensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), that allows analysts to find anomalies and track performance far more easily than was possible with PDFs or plain text. Last summer, I introduced legislation to require government regulators to apply similar data formats to various types of public filings, including bank reports, loan-level data, and executive compensation.

Third, consider the length and complexity of modern legislation. Americans had difficulty understanding this year’s health care reform and financial regulation bills. So did many members of Congress who still voted for those bills. Both bills were thousands of pages long and contained amendments and additions to myriad provisions throughout the U.S. code.

But consistent data formats would make proposed legislation more manageable to policy makers by generating automatic Microsoft Word-style redlines that illuminate proposed changes to federal law. Essentially, implementing transparency technologies in Congress would provide a bill’s proponents and opponents alike a useful tool when considering legislation before voting.

Consistent data formats and reliable public access would give the public a better understanding of their government’s actions. Such knowledge is essential for the federal government to earn the informed consent of the governed, which is a basic principle of democracy. Indeed, transparency through technology presents a real opportunity to begin controlling spending, simplifying the bureaucracy, and regaining the confidence of the American people.
Consistent data formats and reliable public access would give the public a better understanding of their government’s actions. Such knowledge is essential for the federal government to earn the informed consent of the governed, which is a basic principle of democracy. Indeed, transparency through technology presents a real opportunity to begin controlling spending, simplifying the bureaucracy, and regaining the confidence of the American people.