I can see clearly now, can you?

I spent this past weekend at Transparency Camp West, at the Google campus in Mountain View, CA.  I went expecting to be surrounded by my fellow policy wonks, but surprisingly they didn’t make up the bulk of attendees.  Most of the folks in attendance seemed to be developers looking to market their web applications.  There were some marked exceptions, primarily from outside of the US.  I had some fascinating conversations with Ilya Ponomarev, a member of Russia’s State Duma (parliament) and Chair of the Parliament’s High-Tech Development Subcommittee, Daniela Silva, a graduate student from San Paolo, Brazil, Pedro Valente, a Yahoo! employee working out of their Brazilian office and Jonahtan Adir, a senior policy advisor to Israel’s President, to name just a few.

The focus of the weekend was primarily on federal transparency.  My interest is primarily on local and state government.  I am also a serious data junkie, so my ears perked up whenever I overheard a conversation about data.   During one of my many data-centric conversations, one of the tech folks asked me what kind of data I would like to see used in his web application.  My immediate response was budget data.  The techie looked at me blankly and said that budgets only involved entering numbers, and really wasn’t very interesting.  He then asked me again what data would be most useful to me.  Ilya was also part of the conversation and his explanation on the importance of budget data was met with a similar dismissal.  That is when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Budgets are not spreadsheets or columns of numbers.  Budgets are policy documents.  Budgets are where the rubber meets the road; where priorities are put to the test.  Budget Hero is a great exercise in matching your priorities to federal expenditures. A politician may talk a good game, but validation comes only when we get to peek behind the curtain (apparently I am in a Wizard of Oz kind of mood today).

Think of your own personal budget.  There are times when your spending behavior is consonant with your values.  For example, buying locally sourced and organic foods, even if they are a bit more expensive than the produce grown in Chile or Mexico.  From time to time, we all find ourselves facing a disjuncture between our values and our spending behavior.  Usually it is small, like eating junk food when you didn’t have time to make lunch.

Other times the disjuncture has a significant budget impact.  For example, If you had decided to purchase a Suburban because you have a large family and need a lot of space to haul them and their stuff around, then your spending behavior is consonant with your needs. However, if you decide to buy a Prius because of its great fuel efficiency, and instead purchase a Suburban that gets 14 MPG, your spending behavior is not consonant with your values. Neither the Prius nor the Suburban are inherently good or bad.  They each serve their own purpose. The problem only arises when you say one thing and do another.

I wish I could say I only had that conversation with one person who was an anomaly.  Sadly, I cannot.  What I can say is that many of those calling for transparency are doing so without a clear sense of what or why. No one I spoke to could truly articulate what they meant by transparency.  The most common answer can be summed up in the Sunlight Foundation’s mission statement:

The Sunlight Foundation is committed to helping citizens, bloggers and journalists be their own best watchdogs, by improving access to existing information and digitizing new information, and by creating new tools and Web sites to enable all of us to collaborate in fostering greater transparency.

At first glance, the mission sounds like it has meaning.  But when I took the time to parse it, I still wasn’t able to answer the basic question of what or why.  The mission makes no reference to improving transparency in government.  Any connection to government is implicit, forcing people to apply their own interpretation–ensuring a Tower of Babel with no common language.  Nor does the mission statement address the question of why.  The most effective mission statements are written in such a way that all stakeholders will know when the mission has been achieved.  The classic example of a good mission statement is the March of Dimes.  The March of Dimes was created to fight polio, a mission in which they succeeded, having supported the development and distribution of  the polio vaccine.   It seems to me that the transparency conversation can only move forward when we have developed broad consensus on what should be transparent and why.

The following anecdote really captures the problem.  A person at Transparency Camp said he wanted the federal government to give him a receipt like he would get at a hotel or a restaurant.  Further discussion clarified that what he was really asking for was a breakdown of how the hotel determined its price.  He wanted his receipts to include the following:

Hotel room – $100

  • Percentage of front desk staff time required for check in and check out – $xx.00
  • Percentage of cleaning staff time to clean the lobby, lobby furniture, hallways, elevators, public restrooms – $xx.00
  • Percentage cost of cleaning supplies to clean the same – $xx.00
  • Percentage of cleaning staff time to clean the hotel room – $xx.00
  • Percentage cost of cleaning supplies to clean the same – $xx.00
  • Percentage of cost for cleaning cart to carry clean linens and collect dirty ones – $xx.00
  • Percentage of purchase price for little shampoo bottles and soap – $xx.00
  • Percentage of cost to trash hauler for little shampoo bottles, soap and any other trash generated by guest – – $xx.00
  • Percentage of cost for in-room coffeemaker – $xx.00
  • Cost of coffee, tea, sugar, whitener, stir sticks to use with coffeemaker – $xx.00
  • Upfront cost of stocking inventory for minibar – $xx.00
  • Percentage of loss from guests who do not pay for using mini bar items – $xx.00

The list goes on and on, but I am going to stop there because I think I have made my point.

If hotels had to generate receipts like that for every customer, even Motel 6 rooms would cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  The amount of staff time that would be required to generate receipts like that is mind-boggling. And it couldn’t just be done once. Supply prices change on a regular basis. Receipts would need to be generated for the precise length of time guests were in their rooms. A guest who checks in at 3pm will use more water and utilities than someone who checks in at 8pm (I really am having way too much fun generating these lists of expenses). We don’t always want a fine, detailed accounting of how our money is spent. Not when fine details are just not worth the cost of generating them.

Public budgets are the same way.  Do we really want to use our tax dollars used to track down every incremental cost included in every expenditure? Public information laws require governments at all levels to disclose their budgets.  For the locals who read this blog, City of Portland, Multnomah County and Metro have budget pages on their websites.  Want to do some additional analysis yourself? Fortunately several jurisdictions (including the federal government) offer easy access to APIs.

I am all in favor of volunteers and voluntarily-funded organizations (aka non-profits) creating applications using the data already available through APIs.  I support anyone’s desire to drill down into the minutiae of budgetary data.  What concerns me is when we criticize government for not doing the fine-grained analysis for us.  I see that as serious misappropriation of tax dollars.


  1. Hi Eva,

    Kudos on your well written and thought out post. What you ran into is a terrific description of my anathama to those who spend billions of dollars promoting expensive, in the interests of the little guy programs and policies. Unintended consequences of public policy are never even considered. This translates into my disdain for academia which generates a considerable portion of this nonsense.

    It is not from left field to say that the reason why freedom of the press is a Constitutional priority because a free, unfettered press has traditionally provided a spotlight on government, public officials and other major major makers and shapers of policy which has brought about more “transparency” than all the blather which the conference you attended promotes. Infortunately, by deciding to become spokespeople for one party and one political point of view, the news media has become a promoter of the opaqueness and deceit which protect deceitful politicians.

    Since politicians seem to be playing a major role at Transparency Camp, I would suggest that it is just a worthless set-up to co-op and mislead youthful idealists.

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