On April 24 Pia Waugh of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) announced the first ever release of Australian Federal Budget Data in Excel and CSV formats.
This is the culmination of both internal and external lobbying by open data and budget transparency advocates. There are many people within the Finance Department committed to improving the public’s access to information. This includes improving the processes and systems that drive the way information like budget data is delivered.
While a large volume of performance information is currently available there is no easily understood performance framework. Current arrangements make it difficult for the community to determine whether money is well spent, whether spending programmes meet their objectives and how efficiently and effectively the public sector is performing.
Suggestions include better evaluation of program delivery against stated outcomes (these are included in Budget Portfolio Statements released on budget night) and providing a central repository of program information that can be accessed by government in a way that allows better tracking and evaluation:
At present there is no central register of government programmes at a detailed level (like ‘programme expenses’). The absence of a central register has been an impediment to the Commission in assessing government programmes – one likely shared with government when formulating the Budget.
The Department of Finance is currently redeveloping its Central Budget Management System, the information and technology system which supports financial and budget management for the Commonwealth Government.
In the new system, entities will enter financial data at a more detailed programme level, allowing information to be generated and centralised. This reporting will commence in late 2014, for the 2015-16 Budget. (p. 64)
Such considerations are not so much about cutting waste as it is normally imagined but ensuring that programs are efficient in so much as they are delivering their objectives. Without an appropriate accountability system the ability to evaluate at this basic level is compromised.
BudgetAus (of which I am the founder and author) provides a system capable of delivering the kind of searchability across budget data that the government conceeds it requires in order to provide accountability to the public for program quality and reporting. BudgetAus is a system I developed to answer just the kinds of questions the government also requires answers to in order to conduct its business. Likewise, as BudgetAus relies on data from the government itself, it encounters the same hindrances to achieving full functionality that the government itself experiences.
The release of budget data in Excel format for the first time on budget night (Tuesday, May 13) is a major step toward improving budget transparency and accountability because it provides the data to the public for our own examination. However, given that this is the first ever release in this format, this process is likely to be hindered to a degree by the lack of uniform approach between agencies in how each presents its spending information to the Department of Finance for publishing on the Treasury website.
I can report that efforts are underway to provide consistent formatting and appropriately detailed data for projects like BudgetAus, and that the government is making significant efforts to consult with users including myself. This in turn allows me to plug the data into my database for use by the public (although this may take a day or so depending on consistency across agency’s data).
To celebrate this significant step in collaboration between the government and transparency advocates, BudgetAus is running a social media event on budget night and beyond to gather questions from the public.
Our panel includes media experts Margo Kingston and Wendy Bacon, and economists Nicholas Gruen and Ben Spies-Butcher, who will be engaging with you on the evenings of May 13-14 through Twitter to discuss the budget and gather your questions regarding the budget.
In the background our volunteer coders will be working hard to come up with graphs, visualisations or other means of answering your questions using the newly released budget data.
It is hoped that interested parties can carry on with BudgetAus as a publicly owned budget transparency project for Australia. Such a project requires not only people with technical skills to contribute as they can, but also the general public and other user groups to provide feedback and make feature requests as the codebase develops.
Pursuing BudgetAus as a collaborative project owned by the public under appropriate governance structures, instead of an individual personal project, is a necessary step in ensuring Australians enjoy the ongoing benefits that budget transparency brings to our politics and our personal lives. I extend this invitation to you to become part of this project and hope to see you there!