Isn’t it time that we get the DOPE (Digital Oversight on Public Expenditure) on what is happening with the money that local, state, and federal governments pitilessly collect and then blithely spend? If communities can track and share where and how money is spent and how it is impacting their neighborhoods, isn’t that a good thing?
Can You Track the Use of Public Money?
The good news is that such a possibility is well within reach thanks to a confluence of events such as the adoption of information standards in financial reporting and the availability of relatively inexpensive cloud infrastructure. The bad news might be that this would need a mindset change from politicians and bureaucrats and a willingness to transform all those myriad silos of information (that each government department customarily protects with missionary zeal) into standard data sets.
How Technology can help Track the Use of Public Money?
Imagine a situation where each item of government spending is captured from multiple accounting systems, automatically transformed into standard data sets, and mapped onto well-defined classifications across expenditure definitions, counterparties, geographies, and time itself.
If such a wealth of data is made available through cloud-based analytical tools, users ranging from academia, and policy groups to citizens can empower themselves with data that matters. With an information standard like XBRL, this is possible.
I had previously written about the use of technology in the Smart City and AMRUT Mission under the Digital India Initiative of the government. You can read about it here.
Use of XBRL in the Public Domain
Internationally, there is already a move in this direction. For example, check out this award-winning transparency initiative from the state of Ohio (http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook). At the federal level, expenditure information from more than 160 agencies will soon move into a common format, propelled by the requirements of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (DATA Act – https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/data-act.aspx). The avowed idea is to create a tool for better oversight and decision-making, digitally.
XBRL Application as Part of the Digital India Initiative
Coming to India, though there is an open government data platform as part of the Digital India initiative (https://data.gov.in/), there is a long way to traverse before the data become actionable. One way to add value is to focus on end user perspective, from which point of view, expenditure tracking and analytics is an excellent ways to get the ball rolling. Thankfully Indian budgets both across states and the state governments use pretty much the same classification which makes the journey toward standardization easier. However, when it comes to the local government bodies the availability and timeliness of information are quite poor.
All this can change, if the country leapfrogs into making available in the public domain large, standardized data sets down to the final voucher or cheque. The methods and the technology are available. The impact can be as big as what the Right to Information (RTI) had on the discourse on governance in India.
If one extends this thought further, participative governance is a closer reality too, if citizens can access how money has been spent on areas such as public works, schools, and health care in their local areas. It is not inconceivable to standardize physical outcome measures as well into comparable data sets (KPIs in the corporate parlance) which will open up a new dimension in the way activists can evaluate government projects and vendors across the country. Data-driven digital public oversight could well be around the corner.