Op-ed: Data and democracy

Brian O'Shaughnessy

O'Shaughnessy photo

Brian O'Shaughnessy

The belief that government invests money inappropriately is an area of bipartisan agreement. Unfortunately, each party thinks the other supports the wrong policies and promotes poor investment of taxpayer money.

In a perfect world, partisan debate would refine policy decisions and support democracy. Of course, this would only happen if the debate is based upon analysis of the same data. Debate based upon real information can serve as the foundation for informed voter decisions — rather than the verbal acrimony that normally serves as political debate. No one wins a debate where facts are absent.

In another move toward open and honest government, Governor Malloy recently signed two Executive Orders that will help refine our public debate on policy and should contribute greatly to more efficient government. If the timing of these orders was partially influenced by election cycles, so what? They are a great step toward data-driven and evidenced-based policy. Together, Executive Orders 38 and 39 impose upon all executive branch state agencies an obligation to disclose and make available all non-protected data. Originally conceived as a release of economic development data (EO 38), the initiative was expanded to include all executive branch agencies (EO 39).

The process of analyzing data regarding the investment of billions of public dollars is complicated. There is a historical adherence to arcane accounting rules and the natural “marketing” instincts of an entity that spends public money. Uncovering the truth is a process, not an event. The present administration deserves credit for consistently promoting the process.

There is the Open Connecticut website, the commitment to GAAP, the effort signaled by the Executive Orders and other quiet initiatives where state agencies are requiring providers to report results. This administration has also engaged national organizations to help analyze data to accurately evaluate the state’s investment in a more “honest” manner. For example, early on, the administration permitted the Vera Institute of Justice to examine the true costs of our state’s prison system. In totality, the process is moving forward and that is a good thing, regardless of what happens in November.

Promoting open data is a thankless task for an administration seeking to appease an electorate that wants immediate results. The present administration has pushed these efforts forward, even though, ironically, it can be blamed for the bipartisan sins of political ancestors.

A critical analysis of data is a powerful tool for the electorate. The collective impact of the use of data by a variety of stakeholders will prove to be a force in changing how government operates. Groups ordinarily identified as red or blue can work together for a common interest — a lesson for our political leaders. CBIA and CT Voices have shared efforts that support observations about decreasing investment in children and a dramatic increase in public employee benefits — all as the state economy constricts. Both groups want investments in children and business over those for public employees – or prisons — because this will benefit the state. Prisons? Oh yes. The Vera report referenced earlier concluded that in 2011, Connecticut understated corrections spending by 34 percent, more than any other state in the nation. The truth can be helpful in formulating policy.

There is a shared language for the electorate, and data is crucial, as a varied group of stakeholders seeks to articulate how we optimize the investment of limited resources. The public can exert pressure that political leaders simply cannot. The legislature is nothing if not reactive to what it perceives to be public opinion.

As data becomes more readily available, our public discourse will become better informed and, perhaps, more civil.  At least it can be more focused. This is most certainly a good thing, but it will not happen overnight. There is a lack of trust in any statement that can be deemed “political” today.  Hopefully, the reports and analysis of independent policy groups will be evaluated based upon the integrity of what they report and not on a perceived political agenda.

At least we can hope.

Brian O’Shaughnessy of New Haven is a principal in the firm Community Impact Strategies Ltd.

 

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