Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer seemed to be following the script for retired tech billionaires. After retiring in 2014, the now 61-year-old bought a sports team. (His Los Angeles Clippers are playing in the NBA playoffs.) He signed on to teach a management course at a top business school. He started thinking more about philanthropy.
But in doing the latter two, he started an elaborate project that could have a profound effect not only on helping people understand where federal, state and local governments spend their money -- but on the accessibility and understanding of data in an era of 'alternative facts.' On federal Tax Day this week, Ballmer launched USAFacts, a highly interactive website, massive database and detailed report that creates, quite literally, a 10-K for the U.S.A., the document the Securities and Exchange Commission requires public companies to file each year to give a comprehensive look at their financial picture.
The site tallies revenues and expenditures from all levels of government into a surprisingly digestible format -- one Ballmer hopes will help people understand where government gets and spends its money. It also applies the analytic rigor government expects of public companies and creates a common set of accessible facts that could help political discourse in our hyperpartisan world. He's put $10 million into the effort, hired three full-time people and brought in a swarm of designers, professors, economists and programmers to help build the ambitious project.
The Post caught up with Ballmer on Tax Day to ask him about his goals for the site, his views on the need for data in a "fake news" world and whether the process changed any of his own political views along the way. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s your ultimate goal for USAFacts.org? What do you want it to achieve?
I’d like it to be a tool that gives people common data without a lot of adjectives. Numbers don’t dramatize good or bad, they just are what they are. What I’ve found is when people work off common data, they often find that they have more similar opinions than different ones. Certainly, in a highly partisan world, that would be a good thing. So that’s number one.
Number two: I just think it’s really good for our citizens to be well educated in what their government does. Part of what we’ve done, of course, is to provide numbers. But what we’ve also done is figure out a way to describe what government does, as a function of the Constitution and essentially come up with a set of measures on which government might be assessed, in terms of the performance.
Why did you think it was important to only use government data, and not data from nonprofits or other organizations?
It is hard to trust, I find. Every university, the professor has a point of view. Every not-for-profit has a viewpoint that they’re trying to sell. The people who prepare government data -- these are people who are not political appointees, they do these jobs in and out for years. They’re trained to collect these numbers. They seem the most objective, if you will. They’re also the numbers that, presumably, the government should use to make a decision because they’re government numbers.
There’s a survey out from the American Society of Civil Engineers on the quality of infrastructure in the country. It doesn’t match the Department of Transportation's numbers. Of course, the American Society of Civil Engineers want a lot of bridges built. It’d be a lot of good business for civil engineers. So I don’t think you can take it with the same credibility.
How much do you ultimately intend to spend on this? How frequently will it be updated, maintained and expanded?
Let me say, for now, in perpetuity, though I probably can’t promise after I die. Things like this are only worth doing if you keep them up. We need to do a number of things. We need to keep the data fresh: It's older than it should be. Some of the reason is government gets behind, is not timely, and some of it is that it’s hard to collect some of the data. We need to have better technology, particularly to grab state and local data more quickly than we do.
We want to broaden the set of numbers we collect. Somebody got me today: We didn’t have the spend number on the National Park System. So there are things we want to broaden out. We want to make the information more accessible, both by letting people query the information and by providing simpler, packaged material for people to read that’s even more accessible than the things we’ve created. I think we can almost create like a debate series, where people come together on a topical issue.
We have a president who has questioned the validity of government unemployment numbers. Do you have concerns about people questioning government data?
To people involved in government, I would say look, if you question the data, fix it. If businesses question the data on which they operate, it’s the job of the senior people to say 'look, we have high-quality data we believe in to make decisions.' What I do believe is people are committed to get the data to be better. I am sure that’s true for both the current and the former administration.
The initiative suggests you are a fan of government transparency. Are you concerned about transparency with the current administration — such as the president not releasing his tax returns or deciding not to release the White House visitor logs?
I’m just a numbers partisan. Our numbers are about what the government collects and what it spends and what it achieves. Other people will have to decide about other aspects of transparency. That’s not really our focus or expertise.
You said back in November, before Election Day, that “nobody cares about the facts.” When did you first become concerned about the way in which misunderstood numbers and issues were clouding the political process?
Of course I got interested in this whole project way before this was a news topic -- call it two and a half to three years ago. As we were moving through the political season, of course the notion of alternative facts, fake news -- whatever way you choose to characterize this -- became hot. I’m thinking to myself, 'wow, numbers have an advantage.' They are what they are. You can’t fake them.
The SEC makes companies file a 10-K. There’s a discipline. These things cannot be done with hyperbole and they cannot be done with omission. We took the same kind of discipline that the government forces on companies in terms of their own disclosures.
Also in November, an analyst at an advocacy group for government openness suggested government shouldn’t always be analyzed in the same way as a business. Do you agree? Is this just an analogy for putting data together in a digestible format?
I think the discipline that a business approach provides is quite appropriate. But businesses are about making revenues and profits, and the way to do that is to make product. Government is about delivering outcomes to citizens and oh, by the way, we have to raise revenue and spend money to get there. So the goals are very different. But that doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same analytic rigor to both.
We have a president now who has a background in business. Have you talked to the administration at all about this idea?
I won’t comment on that specifically. What I will say is we have informally reached out to a number of people in government who’ve given us feedback on our work. We wanted to help make sure we’re all about the numbers -- I didn’t want anybody to see anything partisan in the presentation of those numbers. Informally, the feedback feels pretty good.
But you’re not saying whether those people were part of the White House?
You’ve said you were surprised to learn how many employees there were in the government. Has anything that’s come out of this this changed your own political views or your own views of government?
Yes. Since my views of the government are not the purpose of the project, I may not share specifics. But what I can share with you is -- at least by my values, by my judgment -- I now feel better about my tax dollars than I did before. It’s not by accident we’re doing this on Tax Day. It seemed to be a little poetic. Tax Day is supposed to be: 'I know what I’m giving to my government.' But what am I getting from my government? And I do feel better about the use of my tax dollars than I would have if I hadn’t had this project. Somebody else may feel worse. We’re just trying to equip people with the tools.
Can you elaborate more about why you feel better?
Part of what you’re determining is: do you like the allocation of how government is spending the money? Is government being wise about that? There’s plenty of things to like and not like. On the other hand, I generally feel like things are in a reasonable shape. Progress is being made, and the funds are being allocated in a way that’s at least not inconsistent with what’s important to me. But everybody has different things that are important to them, and what’s important to me is not the guiding part of this discussion. Rather, it's: Here’s a tool, and we’re going to let people express their own opinions, grounded in these facts.