In the State of the Union, President Obama announced that one of his priorities was a comprehensive review of government agencies to decide which should be eliminated, merged, or reorganized, saying “We can’t win the future with a government of the past.” This will be the first major study of government reorganization in more than 50 years. If it is to succeed, it must use 21st-century tools and a 21st-century mentality as well.
According to the White House, promoting foreign trade and exports will be a major focus of the reorganization. That made me think instantly of XBRL as a key tool, because it is becoming such an important global tool as more countries move toward adopting the XBRL-based Standard Business Reporting system for corporate governmental reporting.
But I’m not just thinking about XBRL as a reporting mechanism under a newly reorganized federal government, as important as that would be.
I believe that this review offers a perfect opportunity for a bold creative exercise. The heart of the evaluation would be tracking data flow throughout the government. As you may remember, the president pointed out that “… the Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in saltwater.” The function could then be assigned to one agency or another based on where the majority of the data flows and is acted upon.
But we can’t just track information flows and then report them using 20th-century technologies. That’s where the really bold part of the reorganization would come in. As part of documenting the data flows, each data point should be tracked back to the first place it was entered. At that point, it should be structured with XBRL GL tags.
That would mean that no matter how agencies are re-aligned or perhaps abolished, the reorganization process could bring about a dramatic change in the way the government (and, eventually, the private sector) handles data every day, because of tagged data’s property of not having to be re-entered. Processes could be redesigned so the data would automatically flow wherever the same tags were inserted, whether inside one agency, or to multiple ones if that can’t be avoided.
What would that mean?
- Government decision-making would improve, because employees would have access to real-time, not just historical, data.
- All government workers could easily become knowledge workers, with ready access to the information they need to do their jobs.
- Even though there will still be some situations where different permits or reports have to be reviewed and acted upon sequentially, many more could be dealt with simultaneously. Everyone who would need to review and sign off could discuss the situation with each other, rather than evaluate and act in isolation, as is presently the case. This would simultaneously cut the cost and time that a company would have to spend before getting an approval, while improving protection of the public interest because every work group concerned could review a situation collaboratively.
XBRL GL is far too powerful a tool for daily administration of a government agency or a private company to be obscured by the growing use of XBRL as a reporting tool. Yet I believe that is exactly what is happening: managers have unfairly categorized XBRL tags as something to be added at the very end of a process, rather than being the basis for all of the data flowing through the organization every day.
XBRL is exactly the kind of 21st-century tool that should be used not only in the federal agency review, but in daily operations of whatever agencies remain after the review is completed.
by W. David Stephenson