A Clear Picture of Where the Money Is Going

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, February 21, 2008

Most Americans do not believe the federal government is open and honest about its spending practices. Earmarks and pork-barrel projects are the stuff of perennial complaints.

The Association of Government Accountants hopes to turn that around. It announced yesterday that it will push federal, state and local governments to provide the public with guides that clearly explain spending practices.

There is no shortage of data on government spending -- budgets, congressional studies, inspector-general reports and audited financial statements produced by agencies. But the association says the material is often hard to find and is filled with technical jargon.

"The average citizen does not read and does not know how to read the audited financial statements, and those are the kinds of reports that we are giving them," said Relmond P. Van Daniker, executive director of the association.

The association urges governments to produce four-page guides that explain agency missions and performance goals, and to use charts to show where taxes come from and where they are spent. One page in the guides should deal with consequences, such as those of military base closings on communities, Van Daniker said.

Some state and local governments already have such guides, and the federal government last week published its first, an eight-page brochure that uses charts to highlight its long-term financial problems.

The association wants more states on board in hopes that the guides will help reduce dissatisfaction and distrust in government spending practices.

The association yesterday released the results of an online survey that it commissioned, showing that federal, state and local governments do not give people the kind of financial information they expect.

The survey responses came from 1,652 adults who agreed to answer questions last month for Harris Interactive, a market research firm. The respondents earn points with Harris that can be redeemed for goods and services.

In the survey, only 4 percent said the federal government "provides understandable financial information," 5 percent said it was "open and honest in spending," and 9 percent saw it as being held accountable to the public for its spending.

About half of the respondents said they were not satisfied with the financial information they receive from their state governments.

"People are saying we expect this information, and you're not giving it to me," Van Daniker said. "It's almost an embarrassment that we've not done something about it."

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