Presidents annually visit the Congress and present a State of the Union address. But these speeches tend to be a list of policy initiatives. What about a report on the state of the nation – you know, how have we done? This may not be seen as “presidential” because it is backward-looking. But sharing information with Americans about the position and progress of our country is an important component of informed civic involvement.
The Government Accountability Office has put this idea on its reexamination agenda as a top priority for federal lawmakers. It says, “By insuring that the best facts are made more accessible and usable by the many different members of our society, we increase the probability of well-framed problems, good decisions and effective solutions.” So far, however, no congressional action has been taken.
GAO and the National Academies of Science began exploring how to move this idea forward several years ago and GAO issued a report examining the issue. Just recently a new non-profit was formed, with the support of foundation grants, to make it a reality – The State of the USA, Inc.
The non-profit’s purpose is to “provide nonpartisan, non-ideological and accurate information . . . to help Americans assess our nation’s position and progress in addressing important problems.” For example: Are certain places or groups doing better than others? Is our nation making progress on a range of goals and aspirations? How does the U.S. compare to other countries around the world? The idea is to provide citizens with “reliable, objective and accessible information about their neighborhoods, their states and their nation.” They premise their effort on the belief that “The democratic system in the U.S. is predicated on civic involvement” and providing useful information “will facilitate more meaningful participation in these processes.”
The goal is to create an easily-accessible website with existing data – social, economic, and environmental — from federal, state, local, private sector, non-profit sector, and international data sources.
Creating a national indicator system isn’t a new idea. Similar efforts were attempted by the federal government as far back as the 1960s. Scores of city and regional efforts exist in the U.S., such as Boston. Several exist at the state level, such as Virginia. And a number of other countries, such as Australia, have had similar systems in place for some time.
There are still many open questions – who chooses what data gets displayed? How will someone know how accurate it is? What about comparability of the data? Etc. But leaders of similar efforts say that just getting started will help answer some of these questions.
This effort may not be on the radar screen of the presidential candidates at this point, but it may well be something that the next president and his or her team will clearly need to keep in mind!