Even people who support government dread having actual encounters with it. Things don’t have to be that way.
In 1933, a thank-you note arrived at the Roosevelt White House. It was straightforward enough:
Dear Mr. President: This is just to tell you that everything is all right now. The man you sent found our house all right, and we went down to the bank with him and the mortgage can go on for a while longer. You remember I wrote you about losing the furniture too. Well, your man got it back for us. I never heard of a President like you.
Other letters were streaming into the White House at the time, many expressing similar notes of gratitude—and intimacy; relations between citizens and the Administration were on close, personal terms. As the White House fulfilled a request to intervene directly in securing a house and furniture for one specific family, so too did it receive pictures from proud children. “Look how big I am,” they proclaimed. Other letters addressed the president as one would a father or grandfather. The top White House mail clerk had to expand his staff from two to 23.
Think of it: a government human enough for people to feel as if they were friends with it, and helpful enough to be grateful toward. Some 80 years later, we live in a different world, one in which government has become, at best, a hulking shadow in the distance. As government has exploded in size and grown more distant from our everyday lives, we have become ever more dissatisfied with it. This past summer, Gallup reported that among 25 major industries, the federal government ranked dead last in public approval, below even oil companies and lawyers. Only 17 percent of respondents had anything positive to say about government. The main reason for this, of course, is the constant government-bashing we’ve been hearing from the right for decades. But it’s also because people can’t be expected to like something they know little about. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, even the majority of those who receive direct cash benefits from the government, in the forms of Social Security and unemployment, do not know to identify the government as the source of those benefits.
This is a problem for our politics—even a crisis. It’s our central unifying belief that government can be used to do good and to help solve shared problems. But if 83 percent of the people don’t see the government in a positive light, we’ve got trouble. We need to think about this, and we need to do something about it.
There is another aspect to the problem of how government is perceived. Consider: Most citizens’ interactions with government are negative. This is not all the government’s fault. Citizens often contact the government under duress—when a tax deadline looms, when a parent or spouse is sick or has died. But the government doesn’t usually make those difficult interactions any easier. The federal government as we know it is mostly in the business of saying “no”—or at best, explaining to citizens under what complicated X number of conditions, after waiting Y number of weeks, they can finally get to yes. All of us, even committed liberals, dread having to deal with the IRS or applying for a passport. We may think of these as minor inconveniences, but multiply them by many millions and they become a way of life—a way of life that tells people, “Government is not your friend.”
In response, we posit a set of rarely considered questions: What if government were conceived in a radically different fashion? What if government didn’t wait to hear from people in crisis, but reached out to them affirmatively—even sometimes with (gasp!) good news? What if government were in the business of saying yes? And what if the federal government devised methods to let people know—and the vast, vast majority of them have no idea—the ways in which they are already benefiting from government intervention and assistance in their daily lives, from their earliest years on earth to their very last?
It is with these questions in mind that we’ve conceived of “iGov,” a set of principles and practices, which we will outline below, that will make government more accessible, more comprehensible, and—harkening back to Roosevelt’s day—more human. Last year, in the pages of this journal [“Seeing Where the Money Went,” Issue #20] and in The Washington Post, we proposed a “taxpayer receipt,” a one-stop way for citizens to know exactly where their tax money goes. We were pleased to see the idea widely embraced. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate, and the White House released its own version of the receipt online.
That was a promising start. But “iGov” will take the concept several steps further. Over the long term, we need a system that presents an accurate, comprehensive picture of the tangled relationship among government, individual citizens, and their communities. Such a system would line up costs (taxes, fees, and the like) and benefits (Social Security, Medicare, subsidized school loans, etc.) side-by-side, giving all Americans a personalized peek into the bureaucracy they both finance and depend on over the course of their lives. The result, we hope, would be a better-informed citizenry—and a citizenry less hostile to government, since it would now be informed about what government really does.
iGov: What Government Is Doing for Me
iGov would offer citizens a simple and reliable way to track their relationship with the federal government over their lifetimes. Each citizen would have his or her own iGov account, through which the federal government would be able to present the accumulation of the benefits that a person has ever received from across the government. A single click would reveal what the government has meant in a person’s life, in the most concrete terms.
Specifically, iGov would offer all Americans the chance to see their income, taxes paid on that income, and their personal benefits received. In this system, benefits listed would include Social Security, student loans, farm subsidies, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, earned-income tax credit, Medicaid/Medicare, and deductions such as those for home mortgage interest, health care, child care, and retirement savings. These benefits are alike in their directness, making them relatively easy to track and straightforward enough to represent. Whether or not other material advantages, such as the low tax rate afforded capital gains in comparison to income, would count for our purposes is a matter for political debate. But the largest benefits, those that form the core of social policy, must be included.
Costs, meanwhile, would be reflected via a longitudinal version of the taxpayer receipt we proposed in our earlier articles. You would see not only where your tax dollars went one year, but where they had gone in previous years, too. As we discussed in our articles proposing the receipt, we believe that it’s possible to display costs by aggregating different functions of federal spending into useful categories, such as “defense,” “transportation” and “health.” The direct benefits you’ve received throughout your life would be enumerated. Moreover, benefits to your community—town, county, state—would be specifically identified. Costs and benefits wouldn’t line up exactly, nor would they be expected to. The point is only to offer a portrait of your lifetime relationship with government.
All the information iGov would display is currently collected, but strewn across a maze of federal agencies. When the FBI performs a background check, it accesses some of it. Our system would comprehensively present, to every American who wishes to see it, what the government already knows about him or her. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Citizens would be asked if they wished to sign up for an iGov account whenever they have business with the federal government—for example, when renewing a passport or filing taxes online. Your Social Security number would help iGov identify your information in the computers of various government agencies.
Today, information about costs and benefits for many key government programs is virtually missing from the Internet. For example, neither Medicare nor Medicaid informs beneficiaries about how much their coverage is worth each year. In contrast, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to show employees the value of their benefits starting in 2012, making employees more aware of the cost of their private coverage. It seems obvious that beneficiaries of public health-care programs like Medicare and Medicaid should be just as well informed.
The problem of absent or deficient transaction information is not limited to the public health realm. In the current recession, one out of four Americans has been receiving food stamps or some other kind of nutrition assistance. Yet beneficiaries will never see an accounting of how much they received. That helps explain why 25 percent of people who receive food stamps claim that they have never used a government program, according to political scientist Suzanne Mettler with the Cornell Survey Research Institute. Recipients of most other government social programs are even less likely to acknowledge they benefited from a government program. Contrast this with Amazon.com, where with a few quick clicks you can call up a list of every transaction you’ve ever had with the company.
Although progressives have more reason to be concerned about the lack of knowledge over the benefits of government, it is a problem for conservatives, too. For example, reforming entitlements is made all the more difficult by the beneficiaries’ perception that they are only getting what they put in. A personalized accounting of lifetime benefits and taxes paid would show the significant gap that is contributing to the long-term structural deficit. More generally, an increase in public information is not bound to lead to greater support for progressive policies. Indeed, as research has shown, even a perfectly well-informed public would still be deeply skeptical about the estate tax.
For programs harder to quantify on a per-citizen basis, such as roads and education, agencies could show costs and benefits via Google maps. The model here would be the way in which the Obama Administration highlighted the benefits of the Recovery Act using a map that breaks down costs at the level of state or ZIP code. With iGov, the benefits disbursed from each agency could be displayed and separated out. Want to know how much highway money your neighborhood took in? What about the amount of block grant money your city received? What about all the businesses in your town that are government contractors or vendors—how much do they get? Or public amenities like convention halls and senior centers and nature areas—how reliant are they on Washington? You could look at any one of these, or all at once. Of course, these benefits would have to be displayed at the appropriate level of municipality, dependent on the specifics of the spending. In this way, you could learn the degree to which the federal government spends money—not only on you but on the community of which you’re a part. After all, this spending is already occurring. The technology that could display it is already available. We ought to make use of it.
The Functions of iGov
We believe that iGov would serve at least two functions. It would make clear the extent to which government plays a foundational role in all our lives. Call this the illustrative function. At the same time, iGov would emphasize that, despite our myriad political divisions, we still have government itself in common. Call this the commonality function. The two functions would work together to identify the stake each of us have in government and its operations.
To say that iGov would serve an illustrative function is to say that it would illustrate, as clearly and accurately as possible, the role that government plays in the lives of citizens and their communities. In so doing, it would act as a bulwark against the steady flow of misinformation about government. Misinformation tends to manifest itself in two ways. The first relates to misinformation about the sheer fact of government itself; people do not know what it is doing when it is doing it. The second relates to the kinds of activities that government actually does undertake; people ascribe to it behaviors and attributes that it plainly does not engage in or possess. For an example of the second type, think only of the recent uproar over “death panels,” which showed exactly how pernicious policy myths can become.
The first type, meanwhile, has been explored best in Suzanne Mettler’s research. Mettler has documented at great length the degree to which even beneficiaries of government services are not aware that it is the government providing them. In 2008, Mettler and her colleagues conducted a poll in which 57 percent of respondents claimed not to have received any government benefits such as Medicare or Social Security. In fact, 94 percent of them had done so—they simply didn’t credit the government as the source of the benefits. For most of the people whom Mettler surveyed, government does not even rise to the level of necessary evil. It might as well not exist.
And it would seem the problem may very well be greater than Mettler let on. Her study focused on those citizens who were already receiving benefits but did not know government was the source. Yet what about those who are eligible for certain benefits and services but do not know it? For example, 4.3 million children are eligible for but not enrolled in federal health care programs. The government website Benefits.gov has begun an effort to try to match eligible recipients to services. But so far, not enough people know about Benefits.gov to make the site widely effective. Moreover, as it doesn’t list benefits already received, display community benefits, or attempt to show costs, it’s a far more static and restrained model than we’re proposing.
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