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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

GOVERNMENT TRANSPARENCY IS GOOD EVEN WHEN IT'S BAD

This article is from GovExec.com Columns: Management Matters.  The author,Brian Friel, covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.  The Italicized comments are mine. 

Earl Devaney has spent his career keeping Uncle Sam honest, first as an investigator at various agencies, then as the inspector general at the Interior Department, and now as the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the oversight agency that is tracking spending under the $787 billion economic stimulus package signed into law in February 2009. Devaney said a few months later that he hoped his oversight board's Web site would be a prototype for government transparency in the future, helping Americans see how their tax dollars were being spent. Indeed, he said he hoped the site would help create "millions of citizen IGs."


On Recovery.gov, people can track hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts, grants and loans under the federal stimulus package. They can look at spending in their towns and counties and compare the distribution of dollars in all 50 states. Companies can review contracts that were awarded without competition to see whether they were given a proper chance to bid. This unprecedented transparency has triggered about 200 investigations into potential wrongdoing associated with the money. Now that is a value added achievement.


The site also has generated hundreds of news articles about problems with the data and questionable projects, creating a messy and controversial picture of the Recovery Act's effects on the economy. Proponents of the stimulus package complain that Devaney should have made sure the data was clean before releasing it to the public, since critics have used mistakes in the data to challenge the Recovery effort's effectiveness. Many news outlets, for example, reported stimulus dollars had been spent in "phantom" congressional districts, because some organizations that received funds entered incorrect information for the district labels. Easy problem to fix considering how informative this info can be. But then again different localities could start whining about not getting their "fair share".

Anyone who expected increased transparency to improve the public's view of government should take note of a CBS News/New York Times poll published in February that found a stunningly low 6 percent of Americans believed the stimulus had created jobs. That is not a typo. It really was 6 percent. Whoever said it was to "improve the public's view of government?" It's to give the public information so they can understand what their government is doing. How they perceive it is unpredictable, but it is still a good thing when done right.

That kind of feedback doesn't exactly inspire confidence that transparency is worth the effort for federal managers. Why bother with openness when the result is people will be less supportive of your efforts? Because it is responsible government, not to mention it will gauge public opinion on how important efforts are and/or how well these managers are doing with the tax dollars we trust them with. Still a good thing for the country but maybe not so good for an aggressive and career minded government manager who only wants promotions and could care less about how useful his projects are to the well being of this country or how wisely the funds are being used to achieve a desired accomplishment. It also give us an eye into the private sector as it uses tax money. How many times have you heard or witness lackadaisical performance by a contractor when dealing with government contracts?
 

The fact is transparency is here to stay. Now that the government is posting spending information in such great detail on Recovery.gov, there's no turning back. So the question is, how do managers avoid the transparency trap so openness doesn't come back to bite them? Maybe the government can't just dump its data on the public and expect people to make sense of it. No it can't.  As as Federal Contracting person, I know all too well mistakes happen and even with several "fresh eyes" looking over work, things slip by.  The software can be a real pain too but it was Our Government that put a man on the moon.  No other public or private entity ever accomplished that feat.  If we can do that then I would think we can do this.  There will be pain involved but we have to keep an eye on the goal and keep our minds off the critics who pick and ping on something they could never and would ever do themselves and know that our objective is right for the people of our great country.  But I bet the politicans screw it up.  LOL


Instead, federal managers will have to begin experimenting with methods of engaging the public to help answer questions and clear up misunderstandings associated with the new openness. Linda Travers and Sanjeev Bhagowalia, the federal technology officials who run the Data.gov Web site, have created one model - a blog on which visitors offer ideas and ask questions about the way the site is organized and how it could be improved.


So will the revolution that Earl Devaney started work? The answer isn't yet clear. But perhaps transparency needs to be coupled with engagement. Duh!

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