We are very pleased that the administration included a commitment in the Second National Action Plan on federal spending transparency. Budget transparency is not only important because it sets national priorities, but also because it is a vehicle for measuring performance and promoting greater public participation in government decision making. It is clear from communications with administration officials outside of the document that they are serious about making progress on spending transparency.
In light of the administration’s stated interest and focus, it was hard not to be disappointed at the lack of substance and detail in the commitments that were published. If the problem was meeting the deadline for the National Action Plan release, then it was a problem of their own making since there was ample time to research, plan and consult with stakeholders to develop a more complete set of commitments.
The commitments included five specific goals – 1) join the Global Initiative on Fiscal Transparency (GIFT), 2) regularly engage with external stakeholders, 3) open up federal spending data, 4) publish additional federal contracting data, and 5) provide strategic direction for enhancing fiscal transparency. These are all positive and helpful goals, but they remain either too vague to properly evaluate or too simple to get excited about yet.
For example, the first two commitments – joining GIFT and meeting regularly with stakeholders are both clear and simple commitments. These ongoing interactions may well bear important fruit down the line in terms of important policy changes and increased transparency. But at this point the long term benefits remain uncertain.
The next two goals – making spending data more easily available and releasing new contracting data – are both more substantive and clearly beneficial. However, there is no detail yet as to exactly what improvements will be made, what data will be published, or when any of this will happen. The administration has plenty of options available for both of these commitments that would be achievable and important. For instance, it would be particularly useful if the administration could begin proactively posting contract documents.
The final specific goal – providing strategic direction for spending transparency – is simply a continuation of the work being done by the Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GATB). The GATB’s work figuring out the best way to build on the transparency and accountability successes of the Recovery Act remains significant, but it is once again unclear what new improvements we might expect or how the administration intends to overcome the GATB’s main weaknesses – lack of authority to require changes by agencies and limited resources that prevents the board from doing more itself.
The silver lining of these spending transparency commitments is that the administration has clearly set course to do more in this area during its final two years. Our expectation is that more details on goals and timeline will be emerging over the next few months, as the internal planning process and consultations with outside stakeholders wrap up. When those details emerge, we will be better able to evaluate the spending transparency commitments.
In short, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let’s wait to taste the pudding.