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Accountability and transparency go hand-in-hand

BY GUEST OPINION | JULY 19, 2011 7:20 AM

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Transparency has been a big-name issue since President Obama's campaign. We have heard the most about transparency being applied to financial transactions of the government, but there is another important aspect of transparency, which is to "demonstrate a return on investment." Any first-year business student understands the importance of reviewing the return on investment of a program, but as taxpayers, we aren't so quick to think about it with reference to our tax dollars. But as the federal and state governments have grown in employees, expenditures, and debt, looking at return on investment is a much-needed approach.

Accountability is a word that we hear a lot about at the federal level of government, but somehow we still haven't actualized it. When we heard that the Department of Defense was spending $750 on toilet seats and $500 on a hammer, the public was in an uproar over the wasting of our tax dollars.

We are quick to question ridiculous spending at the federal level, but the question we need to be asking — and for some reason seem afraid to ask — is whether the programs our tax dollars are paying for are effective. We like to believe that the programs the government offers are helping people, but the truth of the matter is we rarely get a report on the number of people who are being helped and what difference these programs make in peoples' lives.

Gov. Terry Branstad has decided that the return on investment for education has dropped to an unacceptable level. This is why he and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds are hosting the Iowa Education Summit on July 25-26 in Des Moines. The administration believes that business as usual isn't the right course for our Department of Education and it's time for a change. Hopefully, we will see better test scores, lower dropout rates, higher achievement of our students, and a more prepared workforce. Perhaps we will also achieve better control on the spending that is happening at the state government level and local level with increasing property tax rates from the local school districts.

Truthfully, however, we need to take this approach for all departments of government. Government does serve a vital purpose, but it is important, with only so much money to go around for funding the various projects and programs, that we understand what the priorities are and know what has the higher return on investment for the taxpayers. I know that this methodology has been a "sacred cow" in government management, but as we see debt skyrocket out of control at the federal level and the state of Iowa trying to repay former Gov. Chet Culver's I-JOBS program, it is time to change our way of thinking.

It seems strange to start using return on investment in government spending, but this approach is really the best approach to maximize our tax dollars and make sure that we are funding the programs that make a difference in the lives of Iowans. Every constituent should take the time, when discussing the budget with his or her elected officials, to ask about the return on investment of the different programs. Then we will start to see more transparency in our government and better use of our tax dollars.

Jennifer L. Crull is an IT specialist at the Public Interest Institute, a nonprofit research group. These views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.


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