Big Data for Budget Discussions

I notice it has been over a month since my last post. I’ve been very busy with my teaching – in particular the budget simulation I’ll discuss in this post – and with my research. I’ve been reviewing the copy-editing and page proofs for my next book (The Persistence of Innovation in Government) and its accompanying monograph (The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants). Both will be published in the next month or two.

The budget simulation involved students representing twelve major Ontario program ministries which were required to submit proposals for new programs or enhancements to existing programs to be funded from a hypothetical $3 billion policy reserve. The proposals were discussed in a cabinet meeting and the final decisions made by the premier and finance minister.

I’ve run simulations that involve allocating either a policy reserve for new programs or a global budget cut for many years. The availability of spending data (estimates, public accounts, results based plans) for the federal and Ontario governments has led me to attempt to make these exercises as realistic as possible. However, the students have always had to confront the problem of inadequate data. The estimates and public accounts present government spending at a very high level of aggregation. Results-based plans provide some detail about a variety of programs, but are not comprehensive. It is therefore difficult for students to determine what existing programs actually cost, which makes it hard for them to determine what either scaling up or scaling down a program would cost.

In this era of big data, there is no longer any excuse for inadequate data about public spending. Open government websites make available a variety of data bases collected by government. Government websites make available various politically salient aspects of government spending, such as travel and entertainment expenses for senior executives (federal) and salaries over $100,000 for the public service and broader public sector (Ontario).

It is time to apply to apply this approach to public spending. This would involve providing comprehensive data about, for example, government program contributions to organizations (such as grants to hospitals, firms, or cultural organizations) or entitlement spending by region or overhead spending by program. There are numerous ways the data could be organized while still protecting the privacy of individuals.

This data could be used by citizens, including students in public management course, to debate budget cuts or spending increases. What would it cost if the Ontario government wanted to decrease class size in elementary school? What would the federal government save if it wanted to close down a number of consulates? Better data would enable citizens to debate these questions. Discussions of government spending tend to be conducted secretly because detailed data are not made available to the public. Making the data available, which is well within the technological and organizational capability of government, would expand the discussion to include the public.

Governments run consultations in the run-up to releasing a budget. The consultations are of limited value because the dialogue is one way (the federal government asking for ideas to be emailed to the Finance Department) or because simulations are conducted at far too high a level of aggregation (Ontario’s recent consultations). Providing big data on government spending could change this.

Returning to the budget exercise, here are some proposals made by the students representing program departments, and accepted by the students representing the premier and finance minister of Ontario, for new or enhanced programs.

• Increase the Department of Education’s going green program from a pilot program to eventually encompass all Ontario schools (25 percent in the first year)

• Increase funding for research in curricular design for science, technology, and math

• Increase funding for the RIDE program

• Train 50,000 more health care workers and increase funding for community based specialty clinics, to reduce hospital use

• Provide larger subsidies to encourage drivers to trade in older cars for newer more energy efficient cars in particular hybrids

• Begin building access roads to the Ring of Fire

• Increase support for the Second Career program, especially for apprenticeships and skilled trades

• Increase support for entrepreneurs in “green” businesses and tourism

Eventually, a new Ontario budget will be released. Perhaps some of these proposals – or something like them – will be included in it.


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