It’s Time for Transparency in DC’s Budget

Last week, Councilmember Mary Cheh held a public roundtable to discuss transparency in the DC government ‘ and her timing couldn’t have been better. 

Government transparency is critical.  Take the DC budget for example, which is arguably the most important document the government publishes.  The DC budget is the main way to figure out the city’s real priorities and how taxpayers’ dollars will be spent.  But, as DCFPI testified, there are significant shortcomings when it comes to DC’s budget transparency, and these shortcomings can have serious consequences. 

The recent cuts to homeless service programs show just how critical transparency can be.  Because of a lack of clear budget information, the DC Council voted on a budget that they didn’t know contained nearly $12 million in cuts to homeless service programs.  These cuts risked closing shelters right before hypothermia season and cut the budgets of service providers at a time when homelessness is on the rise.     

It’s pretty amazing that DHS’s budget would provide no detail on a $12 million cut to homeless services.  But, unfortunately, it’s an all too familiar story because DC’s budget lacks clarity in two key areas: spending on real programs and services, and federal block grants.  Currently, the DC budget is structured in a way that doesn’t tell the public how funding is spent on individual programs and services. Instead, programs are bundled into often arbitrary line items that confuse even the most veteran budget readers.  And, there is hardly any detail on how our federal block grants get spent ‘ like the $92 million Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant ‘ even though they fund a variety of critical programs and services.

Improving transparency wouldn’t have necessarily prevented the homeless services cuts, but knowing they were on the table would have at least given the Council and public a chance to have a healthy discussion about the public’s budget priorities.  And from the recent discussions around the cuts, it’s pretty clear that homeless services are a priority of both the Council and the public. 

We are glad Councilmember Cheh is taking on this important issue and look forward to the steps her committee and the Council will take to improve transparency in the DC government.