Spending transparency

The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance writes in the SMH:

It is a foundational principle of good governance that taxpayers should know how their money is being spent, and governments should be as open as possible. Taxpayers who wish to discover how their money is being used must trawl hundreds of pages of budget documents and submit time-consuming and costly freedom-of-information requests. Even then, information is scant. Ask any journalist. And these requests, as a Herald report showed on Monday, could be rejected in future as certain parliamentary departments are rendered exempt to FOI laws.

But it does not have to be this way. A transparency revolution is under way overseas, empowering citizens, opening governments to scrutiny, and transforming governance.

In 2006, in the US, the senators John McCain and Barack Obama co-sponsored the US federal funding accountability act. Its premise was simple: that taxpayer expenditure be placed online in an easily searchable database, so all taxpayers can find out how their money has been spent.

I have long advocated this for New Zealand.

Since then, the City of London, the European Union and 38 US states have enacted similar online portals – many with no thresholds, so every cent of taxpayer expenditure is publicly available. In some cases, literally every expense of government is made public after being entered into a database.

The benefits are obvious: not only are taxpayers empowered, but also savings can be easily identified, waste exposed and unethical behaviour discouraged. Those who want spending to remain hidden might argue that informing people is too costly, that it just cannot be done. But international experience proves this to be false. The website usaspending.gov, which provides the details of all US federal government expenditure of more than $US25,000 ($25,800), cost less than $1 million to set up – and the software is now available free of charge in the public domain.

This means it could be implemented in New Zealand very easily. You just need each government agency to exports its payments data into it.

Citizens have been searching these websites in record numbers. In Missouri, with a population smaller than NSW, 15 million hits were reported in the first year. Millions in savings have been identified. To use just one example, Texas reported $8.7 million in savings directly attributable to their transparency website in just the first year of operation.

Opening the government books to an army of online citizen investigators has uncovered waste and duplication, and made junkets or pork-barrel spending near impossible. Corruption and rorting cannot occur when the records are freely available – sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.

Another reason to support it.

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