Bureau of the Fiscal Service gives public a big-picture look at country’s finances

With agencies drowning in more data than they know what to do with, a new tool from the Bureau of the Fiscal Service aims to help the public keep tabs on government spending.

The online tracker, called Your Guide to America’s Finances, collects real-time data on commonly asked questions about federal revenue and spending. Later this month, the guide will allow users to track all of the federal funding that goes to colleges and universities — both in terms of student aid and grants and loans that go directly to the school.

Justin Marsico, the bureau’s product manager for research and analytics for data transparency, said in an interview that data will “provide a holistic view of federal funding to higher education and academia.”

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Daniel Cain, the bureau’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Data Transparency, said the new guide, which launched in April,  stemmed from conversations with Treasury Department officials on ways to “make data understandable by visualizing it and making it interactive for users,” based on the success of the bureau’s Data Lab website and USASpending.gov.

But in order to better understand what questions the bureau should seek to answer with all of its data, teams went out on the National Mall last summer and asked members of the public what questions they had about how the government spends and brings in money.

“One of the things that was really surprising to us is that time and time again, people were really interested in federal finances. They were really interested in talking with us and sharing their opinions,” Marsico said. “People felt a little bit intimidated by the level of jargon and the perceived level of accounting expertise that one would need to find this information, but people were really engaged and passionate about the topic, and we used that energy to actually shape the content of Your Guide to America’s Finances.”

Based on those interviews on the Mall,  bureau officials structured the new guide into four sections: federal spending, revenue, debt and the deficit. But the team also got valuable feedback on making the new guide easy to find and easy to use.

“If someone has a question about how much money the federal government spent in, say, fiscal year 2018, and they put that question into Google, if we’re not in the first page of answers, they’re not going to find us,” Marsico said about the need for search engine optimization.

The citizen’s guide team also heard concerns about whether the new tool will be accessible on smartphones and tablets — a familiar concern for .gov websites. Under the 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience (IDEA) Act, agencies have until Dec. 20 to submit their plans to Congress on ways to modernize their websites and make them more mobile-friendly.

The citizen’s guide stands out as just the latest example of the Trump administration’s push for a data-centric government. The Office of Mangement and Budget released the one-year action plan for its long-awaited Federal Data Strategy. And in the more near-term, agencies have until next month to name chief data and chief evaluation officers under the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act.

As a central node in the finances of the federal government, Cain said the bureau is in a good position to serve as “a potential accelerator of change” for the role of the chief financial officer. In April 2018, Treasury released a report outlining how the role of the CFO might change in the next 10 years.

“The idea of that is trying to move the CFO role and the government away from the kind of transactionally focused work that historically the CFO has been involved in, which is like money going in and out, to this strategic partner level or strategic decision-making,” Cain said. “Our team is really thinking about that from a data perspective. We think that the use of data and leveraging financial data — as well as other data sets in fiscal or agency financial systems, or grant systems or procurement systems — that information is really valuable and can be leveraged to kind of help transform how government does business and transform how leadership makes decisions.”

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