Lesley Meall, journalist

Robust and reliable data on government spending is critical for assessments, analyses and insights that can enhance accountability, transparency and decisions on public investment, assets and services. But transforming such data into usable and useful information can be challenging.

Some governments are addressing this by visualising their complex, multifaceted, spend-related data in ways that can be easily accessed and understood by those involved in public finance and others with an interest in it.

Rijksfinancien simplifies access by being a single point from which users can get budgetary information

In Finland, makes government and municipal procurement data (down to purchase invoice level) available and easier for citizens and companies to understand. Smart Nation Singapore offers resources and tools to make spending and other government data easy to access, use and interpret. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, meanwhile, uses its interactive GC InfoBase to bring together years of complex, disparate data – such as the Public Accounts of Canada – and turn it into simple visual stories.

More than numbers

In the Netherlands, simplifies access to budgetary information from the Dutch central government, with a particular focus on anticipating and meeting the needs of users who are professionals in the government finance domain.

‘It is mostly people who are working in the different ministries, at the financial units, who are using this information during their day-to-day work, and they support the staff in parliament,’ says Anna Alberts, who leads this project in the Dutch Ministry of Finance.

The Rijksfinancien website simplifies access by being a single point from which users can get hold of the budgetary information they are looking for, as well as related government information that they may (or may not) know of.

‘We create visualisations where we think it will be helpful to put data into perspective’

For example, if a user clicks on a departmental budget bill, they immediately see a box with links to information that can provide valuable context, such as a debate in parliament or policy evaluations. With just a few clicks they can jump to this (and return), whether it’s on or another government website.

Picture perfect

Visualisations that graphically represent data are also a factor in simplifying spend data, making it more easily understood and offering other benefits.

‘We create visualisations where we think it will be helpful to put data into perspective or create a different perspective,’ says Alberts.

A number such as three billion can become more meaningful when seen in a wider context or clearly broken down: ‘A visualisation can quickly provide an overview of what the tax income is and convey a sense of what this consists of.’

Clever visualisations enable discovery of information and trends that might otherwise be obscured

On the other side of the world, the Treasury Board of Canada is also simplifying complex information and concepts, and facilitating analysis and understanding of complex information that was previously hard to access.

Its interactive tool, GC InfoBase, aligns data from hundreds of different public reports into a consistent framework. Visualisations are generated based on the data from sources such as the Public Accounts of Canada, departmental plans and results, with contextual information presented alongside as footnotes.

Connect the dots

GC InfoBase rolls up the datasets it has available to provide a clear and comprehensive picture of government-wide data with a focus on finances and results. Users can drill down and get similar views for individual departments and some individual programmes. This can make expenditure data, accounting for government organisational changes, new spending mechanisms – and their results – easier to understand. Clever visualisations enable discovery and presentation of information and trends that might otherwise be obscured.

For those who want to learn more, the story of the GC InfoBase project is available on the Canadian government’s website. It offers a peek behind the scenes; insights on the history of GC InfoBase; its inhouse development; the role of technology; the practicalities of data sources, formatting, quality and integration; meeting changing needs and expectations; and how the interactive web tool adds value. As the team there succinctly puts it: ‘We help to connect the dots’.

Learning from the past

What others can learn and apply from the examples above will depend on many factors, including the machinery of government, use of cash or accrual accounting, accounting standards, technology facilities and expertise, political will and history, to name but a few.

‘In the UK, there are subtle institutional reasons why change can be hard in this area’

To assist governments and public servants to ‘learn from the past, anticipate the future and build solutions today’, the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation shares insights, knowledge, tools, toolkits and case studies that could be useful on what may be a long journey.

Wheels of change

The examples above were all years in the making. Initiatives that aim to turn complex data on government spending into the sort of information that parliamentarians, public servants and citizens want and need may demand significant change – and this can be difficult.

‘In the UK, for example, there are subtle institutional reasons why change can be hard in this area,’ says Henry Midgley, an assistant professor in the accounting department at Durham University. Some relate to parliamentary rules; some to the way that public sector accounting is done.

‘You are reckoning with an institution where lots of the practices are hundreds of years old, and also with the ingrained conservatism of the accountancy profession,’ says Midgley. Both can impede change.

Making accounting data on government spending more usable and useful may also demand some deep thinking about how to make it meaningful, by and for various stakeholders. ‘There are some fundamental questions to consider,’ he suggests, such as what are accounts for? What are the questions that they should answer?