In Full View

Could transparency cut down on government waste?

In September 2007, the staff of the Katy Independent School District in Texas-which educates 55,000 children-spent $22,342.49 at pizzerias. The school district bought pizza 11 times, ranging from one order worth $22.96 to another totaling $7,983.75.

That's a lot of dough.

All that pizza might have gone to good purpose-motivation for good behavior, fundraisers for extracurricular activities, or maybe back-to-school festivities. If I were a homeowner in the school district, however, I would ask about the pizza purchases at the next school board meeting to make sure my property taxes were being spent wisely. But the only reason I would know about the pizza is because the Katy school district posts its monthly check registers online. Local citizens can view the amount of every check written by the district, as well as every check recipient. Such transparency could someday come to your federal agency. Spending hawks want managers at all levels of government to post all their contracts, checks and receipts online, for the world to see.

Katy is one of several dozen Texas school districts with online check registers. From Washington state to Oklahoma to Missouri, state governments have joined the transparency movement, too, opening their books to the public for scrutiny of tax expenditures. At the federal level, the Web site USAspending.gov provides summary information of government grants and contracts. Government groups across the political spectrum, from Public Citizen on the left to Americans for Tax Reform on the right, have joined the transparency movement. They want more detailed information about public finances posted on the Internet. The hope of spending hawks is that rising transparency will encourage honesty and thriftiness in the halls of government.

"People are used to going online and seeing their AmEx accounts," Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist said at a May 15 event at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute in Washington. "They're used to checking their UPS and FedEx material traveling across the country. They can see every check they write at their bank."

If people can track their own expenditures online, then why can't the government do the same? "I think at the federal level and the state level in the next 10 years, this is inevitable," Norquist said.

Detail is, of course, the key. On USAspending.gov, for example, I can see that the General Services Administration on Jan. 17 signed a $2.1 million contract with Ford Motor Co. for pickup trucks. But I can't tell from the information posted on the site how many trucks GSA bought, so I don't know whether the government got a good deal. The site does inform me that four bids were made for the pickup contract, so that suggests a good bargain might have been struck. Did the government get 100 trucks? That would be a great deal compared with the manufacturer's suggested retail price for 2008 Ford F-150s. Norquist advocates for posting the actual wording of contracts and grants "to see whether somebody's walking away with the cash."

Recently, several states have launched such public financial databases. The transparency movement is on a roll. The question for federal managers is, would you welcome the scrutiny?

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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