In her recent testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, suggested that the U.S. government must establish system-wide identifiers in national database systems. Such identifiers would be “like checks in a checkbook…different databases tracking the same information will have the same data, like when reconciling a checkbook to a bank statement.”
I agree that recipient identifiers would make data much more accessible for both citizens and news organizations, helping to further the transparency ideal set forth in the Open Government Directive. However, my experience with a nonprofit government contractor leads me to believe that tracking the recipients of public money may be more difficult than it seems.
Many government contractors, both in the private and nonprofit sectors, use government monies to enter into additional contracts with third party service providers. In refugee resettlement, for example, the United States government contracts with only 11 national Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGs). Each nonprofit VOLAG then enters into contracts with independent local affiliates that provide direct services in communities across the country.
Does the taxpayer have the right to know how much public money is being transmitted to the third party local affiliates even though that affiliate does not technically have a contract with the government? If so, does the taxpayer need to know when public money is subsequently used by the local affiliate to purchase English lessons? When do we decide that the added costs of identifying recipients exceed the value of additional transparency?
To be sure, recipient identifiers have the potential to help the public navigate large amounts of data more efficiently; but, it is also important to understand the tradeoffs inherent in tracking recipients. If we want accurate information about third party organizations that receive funding from government contractors, we must be willing to pay for the systems to track all third party contracts. On the other hand, if we decide that such third party information is too costly to collect, we must understand that the data we share with the public is incomplete and may underrepresent the true amount of public money that an organization receives.