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Create a Virtual Panopticon to Cut Wasteful Government Spending

Panopticon drawing from Jeremy Bentham

As the federal debt continues to grow, examples of wasteful government spending rightfully antagonize taxpayers who are fed up with footing the bill for unnecessary expenses. This has been brought to the forefront in recent months because of the GSA’s lavish Las Vegas Conference where over $800,000 was spent on commemorative coins, clowns, and a mind reader. Today, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing where Members of Congress took turns expressing outrage over GSA’s unchecked spending.

While it appears criminal charges may be filed in this case, the real question now is how do we prevent this from occurring next time? While bad judgment and negligence certainly played a role in some of this, at least part of the problem is that there is still a lack of transparency and accountability in government spending.  Even at the hearing today, Members of Congress were unable to get facts about recent spending at conferences held in Palm Springs and Napa Valley.

As I watched the hearing today, I couldn’t help but wonder, why not make more of this data public by default?  In the 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed the Panopticon, a building designed so that all people in the building could be observed without being able to determine whether or not they were being watched. The idea was to use a well-designed system to efficiently control a large population, such as a prison. Since the people inside the building could not tell if they were being observed, they would have to assume they were always being watched and behave appropriately. While many people refer to the Panopticon in their criticism of the pervasive observation and intrusiveness of technology in society today, clearly this same sentiment is missing in federal government. Perhaps it’s time to direct some of the much-maligned government intrusiveness brought about by modern technology back on the government itself.

Making this data publicly available should not be a heavy burden for agencies because they already use electronic systems to monitor and archive invoices and expense reimbursements. The systems already exist and the information already exists, so all that needs to be done is to make this information accessible online. The system does not need to be complex and could be as simple as a straight data dump, much like a government-sponsored version of Wikileaks for non-classified government spending data.

There are two types of benefits that increased transparency and accountability could generate. First, making this type of granular government spending data public would allow more rigorous analysis of the data. For example, data mining tools could be used to better analyze and identify anomalous spending patterns and crowdsourcing could be used to more closely review the data and flag inappropriate expenses. Second, making this data publicly available might motivate better behavior on the part of public sector employees entrusted to manage public funds. After all, if this data is out in the open, government employees may be less likely to try to cheat the system.

At first glance, it might not seem that better monitoring of individuals would necessarily change their behavior. After all, President Nixon certainly didn’t always regulate his behavior because of the White House taping system. Neither has Twitter, where one’s words are published publicly and indefinitely, seemed to have moderated the actions of individuals in society (see, for example, CNN’s Roland Martin or MSNBC’s David Shuster, both of whom were both suspended for inappropriate comments made on social networks). And if reality TV is any measure of our society (which I sincerely hope it is not), then it might even be claimed that recording and broadcasting human behavior tends to bring out the worst, rather than the best, in people.

The problem in all of the examples above is that although technology has made many actions public, the technology blends into the background of daily life and some people forget its presence.  If the goal is to change behavior, monitoring people is not enough. Even in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the widespread surveillance and monitoring of the citizenry by the Thought Police was not something that was done secretly, but rather something that was advertised heavily with the message “Big Brother is Watching You.”

It turns out that subtly reminding people they are being watched actually impacts their behavior and can be used to promote pro-social behavior.  For example, a study on human behavior from the University of Newcastle tracked the contributions to an “honesty box” used to pay for drinks in a university break room. Tea, coffee and milk cost 30, 50 and 10 pence, respectively, and these prices were posted conspicuously on a sign. Each week the researchers added either an image of a pair of eyes or an image of flowers to the sign with the prices. After 10 weeks, the study found that on weeks where eyes were displayed, the people had contributed three times as much for their drinks. Even though the behavior in this study was anonymous, the subconscious cues that they were being observed led to more honest behavior.

Will making more government spending data available catch everything?  Of course not. And neither should it be a replacement for the good work of the inspector generals at government agencies, who may be more adept at spotting problems and failures to adhere to regulations. But by using technology we may be able to increase transparency and accountability and help ensure that federal funds are used more appropriately.

Or maybe we could save a few million a year if we just add a note that says “Big Brother is Watching You” to all federal expense reimbursement forms.

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