The productivity revolution that drove the U.S. economy’s surge in the late 1990s has never reached the public sector. Thirteen years ago, the McKinsey consulting group concluded that “the opportunity to improve government productivity is huge (with) three classic management tools … organizational redesign, strategic procurement and operational redesign.” Yet that never happened.

This April, a new McKinsey report concluded governments of the world could save a staggering $3.5 trillion a year if they adopted a “best practices” approach in areas like health care, education, public safety and tax collection. Yet no one’s holding their breath.

This backdrop is what makes former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s new big data project so intriguing. The tech billionaire has created an interactive website – USAFacts.org – that provides statistics on local, state and federal governments, what they spend their money on and how efficient they are at helping the public. A column this week by Bloomberg’s Albert R. Hunt detailed how the website intends to compare how states handle the same problems.

This has potential to shake up a government status quo defined by inertia. Massachusetts has consistently been in the top three of rankings of state public education systems since it adopted comprehensive education reforms in 1993, which rigorously evaluate which programs actually improve student performance and use simple standards to assess how students, teachers, administrators and superintendents are handling their responsibilities. In the private sector, companies would eagerly follow the lead of a firm with such an exemplary record. But not in government.

If Ballmer’s initiative helps change this mindset, Americans will be hugely in his debt.