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Transparency in Contracting

August 21, 2009

Government Executive’s Robert Brodsky says the Obama Administration plans to raise the bar on making more government contract information available in his article, “Administration Says It Is Committed to Posting Contracts Online.”

The public already has access to some details about government contract awards via, which is a database of federal grants and contracts.  Even more is on the way via, which tracks dollars associated with the implementation of the Recovery Act.  But rarely are the actual contracts available.

Then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain had co-sponsored legislation last year, The Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008 (S.3077) that would have required agencies to publish more details about their contracts.  It did not go anywhere, and Brodsky reports that it will likely not be actively considered this year, either.  However, President Obama could administratively require agencies to do so.  

Contractors are concerned about potentially exposing proprietary information and agencies are concerned about the overwhelming administrative burdens of redacting such information.  For example, the Defense Logistics Agency alone signs 8,000 contracts a day.  Brodsky notes that it took the General Services Administration two weeks to release a redacted copy of the contract when requested.

Transparency and government watchdog groups are strongly supporting the potential move. . . .. It’ll be interesting to see how far transparency can go, and how this will change both business and oversight!


Recovery Act Tracking

June 23, 2009

recovery1The Washington Post reports today that a new survey shows citizens’ confidence is slipping in their belief that the Recovery Act will boost the economy. 

Whoever was surveyed clearly has not been reading OMB guidance on expectations for how these monies will be tracked!

The complexity of implementing the Recovery Act is becoming clearer over time.  In fact, this was the focus of the feature article in this month’s Government Executive magazine, “Untangling the Recovery.”  In that article, author Robert Brodsky notes: “For the nation’s 2.7 million federal employees, the stimulus plan represents a more personal mission. It is a chance for redemption, to convince the rest of the world that the government still can operate as an efficient and effective management organization.”

Even the Washington Post notes: “Tracking Stimulus Spending May Not Be as Easy as Promised,” and cites how a private website,, is reporting seemingly more complete information, faster.  But this private site doesn’t have to develop guidance for, and document, how many jobs are being saved or created! 

Government Executive’s Katherine Peters notes that tracking the number of jobs will be tricky and “documenting that number may take some fancy footwork.”  Federal Times’ Gregg Carlstrom wrote a couple weeks ago that the Office of Management and Budget would be coming out with guidance last week.  But it was delayed; when circulated to agencies for comment, OMB got more than 700 comments to resolve.  So it was released late yesterday.

The new OMB guidance, dated June 22, finally clarifies the two streams of data (money going out vs. reporting back on dollars spent, project results, and jobs created or saved).  It also creates a distinction between what it does vs. what the Recovery Board does by creating a new, separate website.  The new website,, is to be used by grant, contract, and loan recipients and sub-recipients to report back to the federal government.  The new guidance explains how they are to report information on this new website.  It also promises: “Additional guidance to Federal government contractors will be forthcoming. . . revised guidance on lobbyist communications is also forthcoming.”

The guidance also includes a supplement which, for the first time, lists all 306 federal programs that receive Recovery Act funds and are included in the reporting system.  Some of these are listed here, along with their Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance number, to provide some flavor of the diversity of this effort:

The variety suggests the complexity of reporting back data in a consistent manner.  But the guidance also asks for help:  “The general public and non-governmental entities interested in “good government” can help with data quality, as well, by highlight problems for correction.”  They’ll be able to do this via a feedback mechanism on the soon-to-be re-designed Recovery.Gov website.

UPDATE: Robert Brodsky and Elizabeth Newell at Government Executive, wrote a good summary of the guidance in “Stimulus Guidance Calls for More Detailed Reporting.”

The “New” Transparency

May 15, 2009

magnifyingGlassA couple weeks ago, I attended the Mercatus Center’s 10th annual ceremony releasing their assessment of how transparent agencies were in reporting their performance via their annually-required performance report under the Government Performance and Results Act. It made me think about how far the whole transparency movement has come.

Old-Style Transparency.  Federal agencies have been required to report performance information for a decade.  Several organizations, such as the Association for Government Accountants and the Mercatus Center, have been assessing the quality of these reports.  There’s been a consistent theme in their assessments over the past decade that, while there is a steady supply of performance information, that it is not being used to make decisions and the reports are not being widely read.

Traditionally, performance reporting has been seen as a top-down exercise, with an agency head annually collecting, assessing, and reporting on his or her agency’s performance to the Congress and the public.  This approach to government transparency — reporting its performance to the public — has increased dramatically over the past 15 years via annual performance plans, annual performance reports, annual financial reports, scorecards on how well programs were performing, and scorecards on agency management capacity.

New-Style Transparency.  The Obama Administration seems to have raised the bar and shifted the focus on what constitutes “transparency.”  This new world is reflected in several initiatives:

  •, a website where all agencies must post their grant and contract spending.  This was enacted into law under President Bush, but the law was co-sponsored by then-Senator Obama.
  •, a website where all Recovery Act spending and results are to be posted publicly.
  •, a planned website where raw federal data sets (e.g., from the Federal Register, Census, EPA, etc.) will be posted to allow public users the ability to perform their own analyses and create their own uses for the information.

In each of these cases, the data is far more immediate.  It isn’t a pre-digested end-of-year report.  It is far more interactive, and allows both employee and citizen engagement around the interpretation and use of the data.  It takes data and its analysis out of the hands of experts and puts it into the hands of line managers and citizens.

In a way, the new transparency trend runs counter to conventional wisdom, which recommends a small number of measures, digested and interpreted for simplistic understanding.  It means less centralized data interpretation.  It is far more decentralized in terms of data availability and allows individuals the ability to conduct their own analyses and come to their own conclusions.

Challenges to Hierarchy.  But what are the implications of this new-style transparency?  By making data more widely available – even if only within the government – it will empower a wide range of users to more routinely make fact-based decisions.  This has the effect of pushing analysis and decision-making down to the front-line instead of staff offices.  This could be the beginning of a new performance agenda, which author W. David Stephenson calls “Democratizing Data.”  Support for making such data available more broadly to the public is being pushed by advocacy groups such as the Sunlight Foundation.

In addition, there will be questions raised by professional analysts about data quality and the quality of data analysis. However, Intuit and Wikipedia use this approach to gain the “wisdom of crowds” (also sometimes called “crowd sourcing”) in their businesses and the quality and accuracy of the information tends to be equivalent to that produced by professional analysts.  In any case, this may be the beginning of a new accountability structure for networked government.