Just the Facts, Please: Steve Ballmer's Interesting Project on Government Spending

Whether it’s because tax season just ended, or because of who’s in the Oval Office, a lot of people are talking about federal spending. But in an age of fake news and hyper-partisanship, do we really know what we’re talking about? That’s the question former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — one of the country’s richest people — got from his wife Connie not long ago. 

The tech tycoon, who retired from his position at Microsoft in 2014, was accustomed to a private-sector world of easy data. But after searching for a “10-K for government,” he couldn’t find one. Sure, the data’s out there. But if it was difficult for Ballmer to access, with free time and nearly $30 billion to his name, what hope do the rest of us have?

Ballmer's solution to this problem is USAFacts, an attempt to demystify federal, state and local government data and lay it all out in a user-friendly and unbiased format. The database reportedly cost about $10 million to build. That's small change for the Ballmers — and a reminder that philanthropy takes many forms. Traditional grantmaking is the most familiar, but donors occasionally undertake their own projects.

We’ve been keeping an expectant eye on the Ballmers, who've been working to develop their philanthropy in recent years through their organization, the Ballmer Group. Finally, a clearer picture of Ballmer philanthropy has begun to emerge. With Connie Ballmer in a prominent role, the couple is funding leading organizations and innovative approaches with the goal of "improving economic mobility for children and families in the United States." Defying tech funder stereotypes, the Ballmers are taking their time to listen and learn. Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest have emerged as two key areas of geographic focus.

A first thing to know about USAFacts is that it's avowedly nonpartisan. This distinguishes it from another major online player offering government data, a site called U.S. Government Spending, which is managed by the conservative writer Christopher Chantrill. It's hard not to bump into Chantrill's site if you go Googling for government facts — and yet hard to fully trust it when you do. USAFacts is thus a welcome addition to the web for data-hungry policy wonks. It makes no recommendations about what government should be doing. The goal is simply to present the facts about what government is doing. 

With non-bias as a founding principle, USAFacts employs researchers from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR), the Penn Wharton Budget Model, and Lynchburg College. Those researchers draw on federal data sources to piece together a picture of government revenues, spending and activities, as well as national demographic trends. USAFacts breaks down spending by level — federal, state and local — to show, for example, that almost one half of government employees are educators managed on a local basis. 

On the spending side, USAFacts uses the Constitution as a guide. “Missions” for government come straight from the Preamble: establishing justice and ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. In addition to the website, USAFacts has prepared a clear annual report on the United States government for the more wonky among us. It's basically the 10-K that Ballmer wanted.

This initiative is fascinating, and it offers clues about how Steve Ballmer thinks and where he might be headed as a philanthropist. On the face of it, simply providing data to the public doesn't seem like a big deal. But in an age of polarization and fake news, with more funders stepping up for nonprofit journalism and to prevent the spread of misinformation, USAFacts is an important addition to what might be called the infrastructure of truth. If a democratic society can't agree on basic facts, governing becomes exponentially more difficult.

Will USAFacts be successful over the long term? That's a good question. An initiative like this is only effective to the degree that it's widely used. Among other things, this means commanding a big footprint on Google, so that it becomes a top choice of those looking for information. Ensuring that visibility, as well as keeping all the data up to date, will be a big job going forward — and could require as many resources as building the site in the first place.

Related to this, it's important that USAFacts grows beyond a mere pet project into something sustainable, with a set of stakeholders behind it. Right now, USAFacts is a free-floating operation, and we wonder whether it might have more traction if it were housed at an existing institution. One instructive parallel is the Tax Policy Center, a data-rich nonpartisan effort jointly run by Brookings and the Urban Institute that sheds light on taxes, and which has become a major resource for journalists and policymakers.

The future of this project will likely depend on the Ballmers’ priorities. The couple has indicated that their foray into research has already yielded dividends, driving home the importance of funding to help impoverished children. USAFacts also highlights how public spending dwarfs private contributions, and how influencing government decisions can be the most effective way to drive social change. In fact, that insight is central to the Ballmer Group's approach. As its website states:

Many of the services that support the populations we care most about in achieving economic mobility are primarily publicly funded. We will leverage philanthropy to incent public funding dedicated to the development and implementation of the most effective services.