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Monday, March 03, 2008

Comment: New tools improve government transparency

Today, there is more public information available about federal finances and program performance than ever before. Agency Web sites contain detailed reports on just about every aspect of how taxpayer funds are spent. These reports include the nuts and bolts of agency finances such as debt collection, assets and liabilities, and the “who, what, where and when” of federal payments. Beyond these basics, agency reports provide volumes of detailed data and information that shed light on what results we get for taxpayer dollars.

However, transparency is not achieved through quantity alone. We cannot expect taxpayers to wade through thousands of pages of reports and make sense of them all. A report released by the Association of Government Accountants last month confirmed that citizens not only want more government transparency, but they also want simplicity.

The government has been continuing to make important advances in improving how information is made available to the public. “The Citizens’ Guide to the 2007 Financial Report of the United States” transmitted to Congress last week is one example. (See www.omb.gov/part/agency_performance_addresses.html .) Instead of poring through 182 pages of the government’s 2007 financial report, readers can use the eight-page guide to quickly pull up the key results of the report. The guide provides an overview of the government’s short-term and long-term financial outlook, with emphasis on the government’s biggest fiscal challenge, the unsustainable growth in entitlement programs. This is the first time such a summary has been issued, and it is expected such summary reports will be published annually.

Other user-friendly Web search tools and summary reports are available to help citizens find information that is important to them:
Agencies also issue summary versions of their Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs). A traditional PAR contains numerous details on agency finances and performance, but often exceeds hundreds of pages. Under a pilot program developed by the Office of Management and Budget, 15 major agencies have issued PAR highlights documents that condense key results into a shorter, easier-to-read format. (See www.omb.gov/part/agency_performance_addresses.html.)

While there is no shortage of financial and performance information available to the public, federal leaders are committed to making that information continually more accessible. In the meantime, we can do a better job educating citizens about the many tools available and solicit their feedback on how to improve and expand these tools. Citizens can help by sending comments on how to improve the transparency and simplicity of government reports to statements@omb.eop.gov. Include the title “transparency” in the subject line of your e-mail. Through this collaboration, citizens will be better positioned to hold federal leaders accountable for spending taxpayer money more effectively every year.

- Robert Shea is associate director of management and Danny Werfel is acting controller at the Office of Management and Budget.

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