Have you ever wondered how much Australia spends on welfare, border control or the university sector?
Is 35% of the budget spent on welfare too much or is $4B spent on border related programs too little?
Most people, including those considered qualified to hold opinions on the merits of these programs could probably not give you a figure. Most of us do not even know what kind of figure the total budget expenses amount to, although given the uncertainty in the government's own forecasting apparently neither do they!
We hear figures in the millions and billions bandied about but what does this mean to the average person? For such a literate nation it is surprising how little we know about our own national spending.
It was less than a year ago now, I decided to learn database programming and for this I needed data that I could use for free. I came across theopenbudget.org, created during last year's GovHack event. The data set was in no way complete and I wanted much greater functionality so I spent weeks and then months manually re-creating the data in ways that would support the kinds of search queries used in BudgetAus- the kind that can answer my original questions.
Having completed a functioning database I then realised BudgetAus is likey to be the first time the complete Federal budget has been put online in a database for use by the public. The reason a database is useful is because it is necessary to allow user-driven queries and calculations. For example you can find all the programs relating to housing or the environmentand tally them up across the Portfolio Budget Statements without manually going through 20 or so PDF's with a pencil and calculator.
Few people have that kind of time to do such research manually, so we have just satisfied ourselves with the statements put out by government: 'The government will spend $3B over 5 years on x'. This gives no insight into how that program fits into the budget as a whole so we are left none the wiser if this is good or bad fiscal policy. You can't make judgements about fiscal responsibility without considering programs in their context- of the entire budget.
Australia appears to have come very late to the concept of budget transparency, it being an election promise of Lindsay Tanner back before the 2007 election. Upon Labor's election Tanner put Andrew Murray onto the task (called 'Operation Sunlight') of getting all the government departments to coordinate, evaluate and report at program level for the first time in history!
It may come as a surprise to many, as it did to yours truly to find out that this basic level of government accountability is quite a new thing for our nation and without it, a site like BudgetAus would not even be possible.
But wait, there's more! The government has begun an initiative to make its data available for re-use, in sites like BudgetAus. Data.gov.au is a growing catalogue of data sets that public servants have been asked to contribute to. The Australian Federal budget data may eventually find it's way onto such a site.
The point of making data available in multiple file types is because data sets by definiton are large and unwieldy. Putting the budget data in by hand as I did took 2 weeks working 6 days a week in sweatshop-like conditions- and then re-done with every change or correction.
Yet according to AGIMO's Pia Waugh (who is in charge of Data.gov.au), there is no technical reason why this data can't be distributed in reusable formats right now- well, no technical reason anyway. Having spent most of the year building BudgetAus.net, I naturally thought that going live with the new budget data on budget night would be an appropriate goal for the project. You can follow the story of my efforts to get access to budget data in re-usable formats in budget lockup at my blog.
As can be seen, getting Treasury to support efforts at budget transparency is an uphill battle. Personally, I think the government is taking the wrong approach. Given the competing demands on the budget which is now causing them all kinds of havoc, educating the public about what is realistic to expect when so many competing demands are in play can only serve their cause.
It is only when we see all of the Programs listed by size or run queries to compare changes in Programs between budget years that people can see what is actually going on. I leave people to draw their own conclusions from those queries but the point is that the public are entitled to have this information, to be able to drive their own research and the right to engage at this level with the national budget.
Giving BudgetAus access to the requested file types on budget day can only further this engagement. I urge the government to reconsider their position.
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