Steve Ballmer is a numbers guy.
The former Microsoft CEO and current L.A. Clippers owner was renowned for using data to run one of the world’s largest companies — maintaining a deep understanding of revenue, spending, and outcomes at the Redmond tech giant. And now he’s giving U.S. citizens the same types of insights into their government.
In a remarkable and unprecedented application of business principles to government operations, Ballmer today is launching a new non-profit initiative called USAFacts — releasing a series of detailed statistical reports on local, state and federal governments to show how the country is being run.
Launching on federal tax day, USAFacts includes an interactive website, a 291-page slide deck, a 58-page summary document and, perhaps most notably, a report on governmental operations that precisely follows the format of a public company’s annual 10K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission — complete with risk factors and a management’s discussion and analysis of financial conditions and operational results.
“I don’t buy that we’re in a post-fact world,” Ballmer said in an interview with GeekWire at his private office in Bellevue, Wash. “People talk about alternate facts, they talk about fake news … but the numbers are what they are. They tell us about the past. They give us the ability to judge the forecast that we all have for the future.”
Ballmer, who was hired by Bill Gates as Microsoft’s first business manager and served as Microsoft CEO from 2000 to 2014, has assembled a team of more than 30 people to work on USAFacts, including some of the same lawyers and accountants who produced Microsoft’s annual reports.
He’s spending his own money on the project and is being purposefully non-partisan in his approach, aiming to imbue political and policy debates with a deeper understanding of what’s actually happening. USAFacts only uses government data, and the project avoids forecasts, focusing solely on what has actually happened.
“There are a lot of reasons why people believe what they believe about issues of government and politics,” Ballmer said. “But at least you have to ground those proposals in a real understanding of what has happened, and what the numerical outcomes have been in the past. And I don’t really think that’s going to change.”
The USAFacts report is organized around a four-pronged mission statement — derived from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution: Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility; Provide for the common defense; Promote the general welfare; and Secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
So why is Ballmer doing this? The project grew out of his conversations with his wife, Connie, about their philanthropic initiatives. One of his theories was that government was best-positioned to handle many of the issues most important to them — education, poverty, inner-city youth — and so perhaps they didn’t need to worry so much, as long as they paid their taxes. Connie Ballmer challenged him on that point, which led Steve Ballmer to look for the kind of report on government that he would have sought when trying to analyze a company as an investor.
He couldn’t find one. But out of his search, the idea for USAFacts was born.
Of course, the theme of applying business principles to government operations isn’t new. It was a consistent theme from President Donald Trump in his successful run for the White House. Ballmer, who says he doesn’t have political aspirations, has not spoken with Trump or the administration about the initiative. However, he hopes the reporting by USAFacts will be used extensively not only by citizens but also by the people running the government.
“Over time, it would be nice to have government produce something like an annual report itself that every legislator had to sign off on, to at least say, ‘Yes I’ve read this, and this accurately reflects the information, this is what I’m going to do about it, this is the true state of where things are in our country,’ ” Ballmer explained.
Although he wants the facts to speak for themselves, Ballmer acknowledged that he was surprised by some of the data uncovered by the project, including improvements in crime, emissions, traffic fatalities, lifespan and infrastructure. He remains concerned by the federal deficit, and by the struggles of the country’s poorest citizens to realize the American dream — reinforcing the need for the type of philanthropy he and his wife are pursuing.
The risk factors cited in the USAFacts 10-K will sound familiar to any investor who has ever studied a company — showing how the project applies business principles to government operations:
- In a free society, human behavior cannot be fully regulated or controlled.
- Our Government’s revenue and spending are significantly affected by economic conditions.
- Our Government’s revenue and its ability to provide needed services in the long run may also be limited by failure to control budget deficits and the national debt.
- Failure to raise the debt limit could create operational and economic risk.
- Ongoing efforts to modernize the financial regulatory system and the federal role in housing finance also pose risks to the budget outlook and economic stability.
- Our Government has significant fiscal exposure to risks associated with a changing environment.
- Our Government’s ability to achieve its vision is affected by foreign relations.
- Our Government’s ability to secure the financial future of retirees is threatened by the risk of insolvency facing Social Security trust funds and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
- Promoting good health, especially for the elderly, faces key challenges.
- Failure to maintain and upgrade the nation’s surface transportation system could curb economic growth and adversely affect the quality of life for citizens.
- Recruiting and retaining skilled workers is key to delivering essential, and in many cases lifesaving, services to the American people.
One of Ballmer’s big takeaways was the need for more consistent and timely data to help leaders at the local, state and federal levels make better-informed decisions.
In a conference room at his private office, Ballmer took us through a demo of USAFacts, showing the interactive website and discussing the project in a way that made it clear he’s been deeply involved with the details.
Over time, he says, USAFacts aims to become a platform that third-parties can use to build their own applications using the data.
But in the current political environment, it’s difficult to for anyone to stay above the fray, despite their best efforts. So what about the possibility of a backlash against the project?
“If there’s some kind of backlash, fine,” answered Ballmer. “I’m a private citizen. I’m paying for this with my own money. I’m retired in life. It’s a contribution I think I can make. I don’t know if I can make it uniquely, but I put in the time and energy. I’ve been inspired by the work of others. (If there’s a backlash), bring it on, it’s OK.”
Ultimately, Ballmer comes back to the numbers, saying the goal is to use data to help the country and its citizens make, “good, solid, grounded decisions — bipartisan decisions — in terms of where our country goes forward.”
Reasonable people may disagree, but when they look at the same data it’s easier to see eye-to-eye. “I hope that’s true not just for politicians,” he said, “but also for citizens talking to their friends, their family members.”
Watch highlights from our interview above, and read our extended Q&A with Ballmer.