It’s time for the federal government to adopt an open-access community dashboard

Massachusetts could soon join California, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., in levying higher tax on millionaires. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society anti-poverty campaigns of the 1960s, the federal government has spent trillions of dollars in a bid to foster an America “where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labor.” But big government spending has historically focused on relief rather than development; we keep people from falling through the cracks but rarely provide the resources they need to prosper. The massive infrastructure bill set to hit the Senate floor for debate on July 19 aims to develop and create a better future, but we must ensure that the unprecedented size of the proposed bill — or any other spending bills, for that matter — will not go to waste. Though financial transparency will be imperative with spending bills on the order of trillions of dollars, life outcome transparency is equally important — the government must ensure that the public will be able to see, in real time, the fruits of their investments, or whether that money could be better used elsewhere. In 2021, we can harness the power of digital technologies to do just that. 

Tools to keep tabs on government spending already exist, such as USASpending.gov, the official open-data source of federal spending. We can take it a step further and create a dashboard that shows the results of that outlay. If the federal government commits millions of dollars to increase living wages, for example, we should be able to see if those efforts are working. Readily accessible performance measures already exist in industries like health care and hospitality, and there’s no reason why the federal government can’t do this as well. With an open-access federal dashboard, anyone and everyone would be able to see what money is being spent where, the outcome of that spending, and unite citizens and the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to meet the challenges that await them.

These organizing mechanisms are already gaining popularity with local organizations and governments. Hundreds of cross-sector, place-based initiatives already employ community dashboards to enact new social contracts between institutions and local residents by setting goals aimed at reducing barriers to living a full life. My nonpartisan think tank, Finding Common Purpose, has been helping facilitate local community dashboard initiatives across the country. These dashboards align networks of institutions working together to improve people’s lives: government, businesses, school districts, nonprofit programs and philanthropies, among others. Visible to every stakeholder, community dashboards empower people to talk to one another about real, quantifiable issues, shift gears collectively, and maximize the probability of success.

In Cumberland County, Maine, the United Way facilitates one such initiative called Thrive2027, with three 10-year goals to be implemented by 2027, including improving reading scores at the elementary level, decreasing the percentage of income spent on housing, and preventing 10 percent of all premature deaths in the county. Dozens of community leaders, organizations, business leaders and citizens came together to determine what the people of Cumberland need and how they’re going to meet these ambitious targets. That’s a lot to keep track of, and the community dashboard helps Thrive2027 stay organized and accountable to all parties and shares progress updates as they happen. There’s no throwing money at a problem and hoping for the best: Citizens and organizers can track project progress and make adjustments as necessary. This is one example of the potential of community dashboards to facilitate inclusive, sustainable change from the ground up.

America desperately needs a new national social contract like the one enacted by Thrive2027. The CDC created a coronavirus tracking dashboard, for example, as did many major cities and states, and these publicly accessible platforms allowed visitors to visualize how lockdowns, mask requirements, and other adjustments slowed the spread of COVID-19, while also showing in real time the spread of the virus from hot spot to hot spot. By promoting and supporting social initiatives through a national community dashboard, we can reframe what success looks like and provide opportunities for all Americans to flourish.

The technology is there, all we need is the ambition to use it.

Andrew Wolk is the founder of Root CauseFinding Common Purpose, and two other nonprofits. He has taught social entrepreneurship at MIT and Harvard.