An investment in government transparency

Former Microsoft CEO Ballmer funds new site to track spending

LAST TUESDAY WAS tax day, and like many people I got to wondering where my hard-earned money went. Sure, there is the broad mission statement enshrined in the Constitution’s preamble — to “establish justice, ensure the domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense,” and “promote the general welfare.”

But that leaves out a lot details on where tax dollars go.

USA FactsFormer Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has been bothered by the lack of good information on government spending, and he has the wherewithal to do something about it. Ballmer spent three years and $10 million dollars to launch USAFacts.org, a user-friendly database to show how the US government spends our tax dollars.

The beta version of the website, which launched on this year’s tax day, April 18, is just the beginning of what Ballmer looks to accomplish with a grant to the University of Pennsylvania and a team of Seattle-based researchers. According to the New York Times, Ballmer was frustrated with the lack of easily accessible data on how the government directs our tax dollars, and in his retirement he decided to do something about it.

The idea is not exactly new. Indeed, Massachusetts launched a state version of the site back in 2011. Massachusetts Open Checkbook offers up a trove of information on state spending on everything from housing to health care.

Ballmer says he sees the project as something like a 10-K form for the government, a reference to the annual financial report companies file with the SEC. Ballmer believes that citizens and politicians alike should be using a common dataset, devoid of partisan spin, to make better-informed decisions. It’s a concept that should be welcomed with open arms in the “post-fact” era of fake news and a national debt nearing $20 trillion.

Browsing through the USA Facts website, you can already find aggregated data from local, state, and federal records regarding the financial dealings and size of our government (though the website reportedly had some issues staying online its first day due to web traffic).

Do you want to know how many American bridges are unsafe? Or how about whether our tax breaks help the groups they are intend to help? Do you want how many people work in government jobs (spoiler: it’s almost 24 million)? Ballmer’s got you covered.

The easy to use database at USA Facts includes everything from where tax revenue comes from, to how it’s spent, with various other economic and social indicators relevant to our government’s function throw in.

Ballmer told the Times that he started the project after realizing the lack of a centralized data collection on US spending. When trying to do research to help his wife with her philanthropic pursuits, he found the lack of this resource aggravating. “Because I’m a citizen, I don’t care whether I give my money to A, B or C,” he said, referring to the various levels of government. “I just want to know how it lands, how it impacts what’s going on.”

Any attempt to make our democracy more accessible and transparent is good for our country, as it helps us to see when certain groups or initiatives are being forgotten. We’ve all seen the public outrage over various recent spending decisions at various levels of our government, however, it is often hard to contextualize and direct that anger without the proper tools.

Whether it’s outrage over the price tag of President Trump’s golf trips, or over Beacon Hill legislators voting to increase the average pay of state senators by 39 percent, as information becomes easier to access, citizens can delve deeper into how their dollars are spent. Even John Oliver has put a spotlight on overlooked types of government spending, as we try as a nation to spend our money wisely.

Many Americans don’t have the time to make their way to page 60 of a government report to find out whether or not the billions of dollars we invest in various programs actually help alleviate our society’s problems. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to take part in our democratic process; it means that we need to make this information more accessible to increase participation and engagement.

Meet the Author

As a proud American, I am happy to pay taxes to support the needy, and to provide for our defense — these are investments worth making in order to make our country better for everyone to live in. However, if I am to invest year after year in this institution staffed by nearly 24 million people, I want to know what I’m buying. Ballmer’s move should help with that.

Connor Lentz is a political science, philosophy, and economics major at Northeastern University and program assistant intern at MassINC.