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Monday, March 4, 2013

Empower Citizens with Fiscal Cliff Data


Speaker of the House John Boehner said on Sunday, “I don’t think anyone quite understands” how to resolve the current U.S. federal budget crisis.  Well, here’s an idea.
            In his new book, Citizenship:  How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government (Penguin, 2013), Gavin Newsom argues that, in the Information Society, we need to connect citizens to government in new ways, by giving them access to government data so that they can better participate in solving public problems.  The result is more of a bottoms-up than top-down approach to governance.   The problem with today’s federal government is that it is paralyzed by radical ideology and conflicting loyalties.  There is no constructive conversation, making good top-down government decisions almost impossible around important issues.  So, let’s try a bottoms-up approach.
            A first step is to have transparent data.  What, in detail, is the problem?  What, in detail, have the various parties—the Administration, Congressional Republications, Congressional Democrats, various non-governmental interest groups—proposed?   We need to be able to put all of the different solutions side by side with each other and with the budget itself to understand the options.  Then, we—and by “we” I mean the citizenry—need to be able to look at the impact of different options and, perhaps, suggest our own solutions.
            The problem is that we are not, at this point, getting good information, either from government directly or from the news media.   Or, at minimum, dependable information is not easy to find.  Confirming and organizing the data so that people can attempt their own understanding of the problem, evaluate the various solutions that have been proposed, and suggest their own improvements would be a great contribution that any one of the national news outlets could make.  It would go much further toward creating public understanding than the constant point-counterpoint panels of political hacks and hired guns.
            The Fall 2012 update of The Federal Government’s Long-Term Fiscal Outlook makes clear that simple solutions—the kind we’ve been hearing about in the press—are not going to work.  It notes, for example: “Discretionary spending limits alone do not address the fundamental imbalance between estimated revenue and spending, which is driven largely by the aging of the population and rising health care costs” (GAO-13-148SP).  As a public, we need to develop an expectation that the solution will be complex, but that we will need to understand that complexity so that we can evaluate what our elected representatives propose as solutions.  Having the data and some structure for thinking about options—and then being encouraged to delve into the material to find possible solutions—could be very helpful in the long run.
            This would make a great project for CNN or another of the major national news outlets that lays claim to objectivity.  What a way to empower voters to help their government.