In Triplicate: Defining transparency at the federal level

The Government Business Council held a webinar Tuesday that released findings of a survey conducted among 450 federal government mangers. The study tried to gauge, from a federal manager’s perspective, what it means to be transparent in government, if transparency could help agencies further their missions, and what obstacles hinder transparency the most in government today.

In their April 2009 edition, Government Executive featured the survey in “Behind the Curtain” (Government Business Council is the research arm of Government Executive) where the broad strokes of the study were discussed. Among some of the key findings covered in the article, and expounded in the Tuesday webinar, was that federal managers are generally very supportive of open initiatives and see the value in making more information readily available to the public.

“Transparency produces accountability, which breeds participation and collaboration, which allows people to be engaged,” John Wonderlick, Policy Director of the Sunlight Foundation said during the webinar. Mr. Wonderlick was joined by Bruce McConnell, a former Chief of Information and Technology Policy at the Office of Management and Budget, and co-moderator Allen Holmes.

This particular crowd of survey respondents has a good idea of what is possible with granular level data, which is important, says Allen Holmes, the Executive Editor of Government Executive and Nextgov. “Transparency is really the base level of facts and figures,” said the co-moderator of the panel discussion.

Results from the survey found that differentiating structured data from decision-making processes was key for many federal managers in leveraging the data in meaningful ways.

“President Obama is a big supporter of granular information,” Mr. Wonderlick said, “which is helpful.”

However, as most industry observers have pointed out, the survey confirmed that legacy systems and information security hinder information sharing and federal managers’ ability to be more transparent with the public. According to the survey, 76 percent of respondents said security and message control were among the biggest barriers to open government. Bruce McConnell, though, pointed out that security in many instances can be a red herring for those who are fundamentally opposed to a more open government.

All of the panelists agreed that some sort of “open directive” from the President couldn’t come soon enough and that most people are ready to use it as leverage to make government more transparent. But slightly different conclusions were reached at an event this past Wednesday.

The Federal Times reported that during a breakfast sponsored by George Mason University and CGI’s Institute for Collaborative Government, some federal mangers expressed concern about “data dump”. Since state and local government is expected to keep close accounting records and submit them online in a short amount of time, some worry about the possibility of inaccurate information getting online before federal agencies have a chance to catch it.

“We’re going to have this torrent [of data], and a lot of people are going to overreact to that,” said Paul Posner, a former senior auditor at the Government Accountability Office. “The surest way to bring oversight to a halt is a massive undifferentiated data dump,” said Michael Tankersley, inspector general at the Export-Import Bank. “You create a whiteout for whoever’s driving the bus.”

When asked about pros and cons to where the federal government is starting with regards to transparency, Mr. McConnell said, “There are two changes in a positive direction,” compared to the Clinton/Gore Administration. “There’s a much younger federal workforce, who are more familiar with Online interaction and collaboration. The change to open government is as much a cultural change as it is a technical one.” And the second element is that “the technology base has improved a great deal in the last sixteen years. Improvements in the way technology can be built and shared will help open government faster,” and make it more responsive.

Mr. Wonderlick said he’s watching the general rise in expectations about how government deals with information, from both the federal managers and the public at large. “It’s exciting to think that people in government see this as a leadership because that’s an area where there is strong commitment [to open government]. Rising expectations are getting through to government and that speaks to enormous potential.”

The consensus of the panel was that a more open government is simply the future of government. Despite technological obstacles, it would seem that government is, in fact, ready for transparency. Once a workable open initiative is implemented and in practice, government-wide, the real test will be to make sure it stays that way for generations and Recovery Acts to come.

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