Posts Tagged ‘transparency’

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!


Transparency Pot Shots

July 20, 2009

recovery1The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board estimates that about 200,000 entities (state agencies, localities, companies, non-profits) will be entering data into the website.

Anybody can look up every expenditure reported. But how do you ensure clarity and accuracy? Will media or others take pot shots without attempting to follow through on unclear information that’s been posted?

Today, the answer is “yes.”  Drudge Report started posting some odd-looking entries into the system with alarming headlines, such as:  “AWARDED: $1,191,200 FOR ‘2 POUND FROZEN HAM SLICED’ “  This led to a quick scramble by the Department of Agriculture to explain

“The references to “2 pound frozen ham sliced” are to the sizes of the packaging. Press reports suggesting that the Recovery Act spent $1.191 million to buy “2 pounds of ham” are wrong. In fact, the contract in question purchased 760,000 pounds of ham for $1.191 million, at a cost of approximately $1.50 per pound.”

Is it up to the data submitter (in this case, Clougherty Packing, LLC), the reporter, or the government to ensure clarity or context?  Doing data quality control over 200,000 separate submitters and still allow relatively “real time” access to data is probably impossible.  Will a political “gotcha” atmosphere temper the Obama Administration’s efforts to increase transparency?  Or is this just the price of getting it right?

As Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney notes in his first blog post today:  “Think of as a “New Dawn” in transparency and accountability. To my way of thinking, the government will have to follow this model in future spending. The public will not accept any less, and you shouldn’t.”

Open Gov Directive: Progress to Date

June 24, 2009

The White House continues to pioneer a new approach to crafting policy by actively seeking public input.  The media seems a bit skeptical about how it is going, though, calling it “not so presidential” in part because of the many off-topic comments.  However that hadn’t deterred the pioneers!

Background.  Back in January, President Obama directed the development of an Open Government Directive that would guide agencies in being more transparent, participative with citizens, and collaborative.  That effort began in earnest in late May with the launch of a three-phase effortwhite-house-south-lawn1 to develop this policy with broad citizen input.

Phase I, which invited citizens to “brainstorm” on what should be covered by the directive, resulted in more than 4,100 ideas with thousands of citizens voting more than 210,000 times on their favorite ideas . . . but these included off-topic ideas not related to drafting a directive but rather releasing UFO files, JFK assassination files, President Obama’s “real” birth certificate, etc.

Phase II invited citizens to participate in a blog-based “dialogue” on key (on-topic) ideas that surfaced from the brainstorming phase.  And there were plenty, including videoing all public meeting and posting them on line, as well as creating a “citizen’s portal” that individuals could customize based on where they lived and their interests.

And now citizens are being invited to participate in Phase III, the “drafting” phase, to jointly craft recommendations that would be used by the White House to actually draft the final Directive.

Progress to date.  In each of the three phases, the White House relied on a different technology platform to engage with citizens.  This meant that participants had to re-register for each phase.  But it also served as a filtering process.  While thousands participated in the brainstorming phase, only about eight dozen have registered so far to participate in the final drafting phase.

The White House notes that the Drafting Phase run through midnight, Sunday, June 28th.  That wiki-based effort is organized around 16 sets of topics related to transparency, participation, and collaboration.  So if you want to participate, do it soon!  They recommend engaging earlier so others can review and vote on the best draft under each topic.

Open Government Blogging.  Probably the most interesting elements of this process, to date, have been a series of explanatory blog entries posted on the White House site “Open Government Blog” (really the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which is coordinating this initiative within the White House).  They provide a rich context for what is unfolding:

Open Government Dialogue: Transparency

June 4, 2009

I’ve been intrigued by the Open Government initiative that launched May 21st.  The three-phase initiative (brainstorm, discuss, then draft recommendations for the president’s Open Government Directive) has now moved into the second phase, an online dialogue on key themes that came out of the brainstorming phase.  So what’s happened so far?

Phase I Brainstorming.  In the first phase, the White House launched on May 21st a week-long on-line brainstorming opportunity where anyone could contribute their ideas as to how the government could be more transparent, participative, and collaborative.  I was part of the team from the National Academy of Public Administration that was reading and summarizing the comments, so I visited frequently that first week.  We were asked by the White House to provide a summary snapshot after that first week, and to compare the insights with those that had been previously gathered from a similar initiative held inside the government among federal employees.

There were public complaints that there was little notice and that one week was too short, so the site will continue to be open for comments until June 19.  Interestingly, at the end of Week One (last Thursday) there were 900 topics posted and at the end of Week Two (today) there were more than 3070 topics posted, with more than 99,000 visits by 12,000 registered users. The site allows visitors to vote and comment on which topics they see as most promising.  There have been more than 212,000 votes and 11,200 comments as of yesterday (June 3). 

Is there anything of value coming out of this experiment in open government?

Well, there is a large amount of “noise” unrelated to drafting the president’s directive, such as a campaign demanding the president release his “real” birth certificate (the one already posted online seems to not be sufficient for what are now being called “the birthers”). 

Phase II:  Dialogue.  White House staffer Beth Noveck has written a very thoughtful summary of ideas and themes around Transparency that came from the Phase I Brainstorm that is serving as the first discussion topic in Phase II.  These address potential principles, governance approaches, and ways to access information.

“The ideas that received the most organized support were not necessarily the most viable suggestions,” Noveck wrote. “There were plenty of great ideas that we read but that unfortunately did not make sense to bring into the next phase, including those with no relation to transparency policy, endorsing a product, or describing legislative action outside the purview of the Executive branch.”

There has also been some interesting analyses by outside groups.  For example, the Sunlight Foundation compared the topics generated by government vs. private posters and observed: “on the outside, people are talking data and transparency. On the inside, people are talking collaboration and tools.”

Other media reports have been somewhat skeptical.  For example, Josh Gerstein, with Politico notes in“White House Transparency Effort Falls Short for Some,” that there are a number of less-than-relevant discussions – such as a series of posts recommending the loosening of marijuana laws.

What will be interesting is to see how the Phase II dialogue evolves.  Noveck says:

“When making Open Government recommendations, we may want to include a set of transparency principles. We need your help articulating those principles, their definitions and the rationale behind them. We need to explain what they mean in practice and prioritize among them.”

You can join the discussion to help define the Transparency Principles here.

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.

Transparency: Promising Practices

May 14, 2009

If you haven’t read the GSA Intergovernmental Solutions’ Spring 2009 newsletter, it’s worth downloading and reading.  It’s about 40 pages of articles.

This issue’s theme focuses on transparency and provides a useful snapshot of where government is at.  It provides President Obama’s directive, an overview of the effort, and potential directions in coming months, such as the proposed site that is a vision of the new federal CIO, Vivek Kundra.

The issue also provides some examples of what other governments are doing in the transparency arena, include Texas, Georgia, and New Zealand.

Survey on Transparency in Government

April 10, 2009

The current issue of Government Executive magazine has a terrific article by Andrew Noyes, “Behind the Curtain: What Transparency Really Means,” which explains why Obama’s Transparency and Open Government Directive will be challenging to draft and implement.


Noye’s article raises key questions:  “What exactly is government transparency? How is it interpreted by those inside government who need to execute it? How will it be measured? What will it look like to the public?”


He begin to answer some of these questions with results of a recent survey of senior government managers that shows a clear disconnect between what government employees may see as transparent vs. how citizens and advocacy groups may view transparency:


·         nearly 90 percent said they viewed transparency as providing facts and figures on project results and findings.

·         about 74 percent said open government also included providing information such as policy rationales on how agencies went about making the decisions that they did, and

·         67 percent said open government also included making data ready for analysis from nongovernmental groups.


What managers said was not part of their definition of transparency was supplying names of those involved in top-level policy decisions (only 45 percent said those should be made public) and minutes from meetings (26 percent).


Noyes observes: “How transparency plays out will have significant political ramifications for Obama, say academics and government technology specialists. If the administration gets transparency right, which means it succeeds in opening the policymaking process and government operations in a way that the public perceives as credible and holds agencies accountable, it will forever change standard operating procedure in Washington.”


The results of the Government Executive survey will be discussed in a webinar on Tuesday (April 14) at 2 p.m., if you’re interested in learning more.

Progress on Obama Transparency Efforts

March 3, 2009

President Obama signed a directive in his first full day in office committing his Administration to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.” He directed the Chief Technology Officer to, within 120 days, create recommendations for an Open Government Directive.


Well, 120 days is May 21st and there’s no Chief Technology Officer. So Beth Noveck, in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, is filling in the breech. When she was a law professor before joining the Obama Administration, she participated in a number of cutting edge approaches to opening up government, so she’s got a passion for this already. I’m sure she’s working with Vivek Kundra, the OMB e-government administrator who is equally passionate about this topic.


To date, there’s been a note to agency officials who already monitor this topic to provide their ideas on greater transparency. This is being done via a membership-restricted government website that was originally created for agency budget officers to communicate with each other. They have until March 6th to provide their ideas.

LATER ADDITION:  Here’s the actual note.

After March 6th, a government website will be created for citizens and others to provide their ideas for how government should be more transparent, participative, and collaborative. But that hasn’t stopped others from forging ahead in advance!


The Administration has already undertaken several transparency initiatives, as noted by blogger Chris Dorobek. The most prominent are associated with the Recovery Act, with the creation of, as well as agency-level web links tracking Recovery Act monies and projects (see, for example, the HHS Recovery Act webpage).


Also, a number of agency heads are writing their own blogs, including the Director of OMB, Peter Orszag. Other high-visibility bloggers include the White House, the State Department, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.


Here are some ideas already on the table to expand the Obama efforts:

  • The Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy Coalition issued a white paper to the Obama Transition team back in November, recommending the creation of a White House Office of Citizen Engagement. While that hasn’t happened, the White House did designate Kate Stanton as the director of citizen participation.
  • There was a “Transparency Camp” held this past weekend among advocates of greater transparency. One of the participants, David Stephenson, offered a presentation on “Democratizing Data” where the federal role would be to provide raw data feeds of as much data as possible, allowing citizens to create their own mashups of information. This approach was taken by Vivek Kundra when he was the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia (see DC Data Catalog). Interestingly, Stephenson points to experiences in other countries where increased data sharing lowered government administrative costs.

  • There is a wish list of different transparency ideas published by the Sunlight Foundation, which is a strong advocate of transparency. Some of these are statutory, but some are simple, such as having the president post any signing statements on the White House website 72 hours before he signs a bill.

Still, much of this won’t be easy. There was a great article by Jose Antonio Vargas yesterday in the Washington Post, “Web-Savvy Obama Team Hits Unexpected Bumps,” describing the practical barriers to greater transparency because of existing government laws and policies.

Transparency and Open Government: Obama Style

January 27, 2009

As one of his first acts in office, President Obama signed a memorandum, “Transparency and Open Government.”  The memorandum directs the yet-to-be-announced Chief Technology Officer to lead a 120-day study on ways to act upon three principles outlined in the memo:


Government should be transparent: agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online, and solicit public feedback to identify information of greatest use to the public.


Government should be participatory:  agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and provide their collective expertise and information.


Government should be collaborative:  agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across levels of government, and with nonprofits, businesses and individuals.  Agencies should also solicit public feedback to assess how well they are collaborating and to identify new ways to cooperate.


The study, to be coordinated with the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the yet-to-be-named administrator of the General Services Administration, is to recommend an Open Government Directive that agencies would implement.


It was unclear from the memorandum when the 120-day study period would begin.  If you know, please respond in the comment box below!

Inventory of Blog Entries

October 22, 2008

This is my 100th blog entry!  Thanks to our many readers and contributors.  While few people post comments on our entries, we get lots of emails and phone calls.  Also, thanks to the Library of Congress for asking to preserve the site as part of its 2008 election coverage.  It’s been fun.


I looked back to see if there were any themes to all the stuff I’ve been writing and thought this would be a good point to come up with a rough index, which I’ll periodically update:


 (Last Updated: December 23, 2008)


Blogs on “The Big Picture” — Where Is Government Reform Going?

Blogs on What the Campaigns Have Been Saying About Government Reform


Blogs on the History of Transitions


Blogs on the 2008 Transition Process

 Blogs on The Bush Administration’s Transition-Out Activities

 Blogs on Management Ideas for the Next Administration

 Blogs on Advice for the New Team

Blogs on What Other Groups Are Doing


I’ll expand this list over time, so you might want to bookmark this page and return to it when you might be looking for something particular.


Also, I’m getting so much stuff, I’ll start blogging more frequently, with shorter blogs.  Would like to see how that works for you. Let me know.