"If we have more information -- better information -- we can make better choices and build a better Philadelphia."
How will the next mayor of Philadelphia spend our money? How will the next mayor involve us in those decisions?
"In the land of the blind," it is said, "the one-eyed man is king." But when it comes to figuring out how public money is spent: it is our money and we deserve a clear-eyed view of where every penny goes. More important, we need budgetary accountability for us to be able to participate meaningfully in decisions about how our money should be best invested in the future. Today, however, we are treated like mushrooms by elected and public officials (we remain in the dark and often under piles of manure) when it comes to how they spend our money.
See It To Believe It
Two years ago this month during my campaign for City Controller, I debuted a new tool to visualize and understand the city budget. The Bulldog Budget -- available online at http://budget.brettmandel.com -- not only shows how every single penny was spent, but allows users to search for any expenditure in the city budget.
The reaction to the release of this tool was exciting as curious outsiders and government insiders offered high praise. Technical.ly Philly called it, "the coolest, most comprehensive City of Philadelphia budget visualization you've ever seen." (Full Review)
The completely open-source tool, which took only weeks to conceive, design, and produce, was built by a single technology freelancer (thank you Ben Garvey). After its release, officials in other jurisdictions as far away as Italy and Romania used the Bulldog Budget's infrastructure to visualize government spending in places near and far. Yet here in Philadelphia, despite the Nutter Administration’s promises to release its own budgetary-transparency tool, we remain as in-the-dark as ever. City budgetary numbers are released by lump-sums by class of expenditure and by agency without allowing us to see where the dollars actually went. The School District budget is even more opaque and almost totally impenetrable.
It shouldn't be and doesn't have to be this way. It is most certainly our money that they are spending and we absolutely need to see how it is being spent if we are to have any hope of making better decisions about how we spend public money in the future. The technology obviously exists to make government spending totally transparent, so it is a clear and conscious choice to not make it so. In fact, not only is it fairly easy to show where the money went (for the Bulldog Budget, we did this by gathering information through a series of Right-To-Know requests), but it is absolutely possible to show this in real time, so we could even see where every single penny is going BEFORE the money is out the door. That would make it possible for official watchdogs and everyone else to flag questionable expenditures before they occur so we can stop wasteful and irrational spending before it is too late to do anything more than just complain about it.
Say Can You See?
In praising the Bulldog Budget, The Philadelphia Inquirer explained why government likes to keep us in the land of the blind:
"Why haven't city officials already provided such accessible budget information? Because, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, they don't care. Transparency, especially with respect to spending, has never been a City Hall priority. The public is generally expected to trust that every dollar the government spends is strictly necessary - and, of course, that every tax hike it imposes must be similarly predestined." (Full Editorial)
I lost my election so it's clear that the City Controller's Office won't lead Philadelphia into a future of budgetary transparency and governmental accountability. However, we have elections every year and this year we get to elect the Mayor and City Council. So let's make sure that the candidates commit to utilizing the Bulldog Budget or similar technology to give us the tools we need to understand public spending.
When you meet them on the campaign trail, give them your best Jerry Maguire -- don't tell them they had you at, "Hello," scream, "SHOW ME THE MONEY."