DorobekInsider: Transparency and stimulus – this stuff simply isn’t easy, but it could be powerful

20090416-cgiI had the opportunity to attend a fascinating session Wednesday focusing on transparency and, specifically, the stimulus package — creatively titled “Transparency as a Management Tool.” The session was hosted by the CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government and George Mason University… and featured some of the best and the brightest:

* Kshemendra Paul, Federal Chief Architect at OMB’s Office of E-Government and IT, who is actively involved in establishing a central governmentwide system for Recovery Act reporting.
* David McClure, Managing Vice President at Gartner Government Research, who has consulted with numerous federal, state, and local government executives about the Recovery Act.
* Stan Czerwinski, Director of Strategic Issues at the General Accountability Office, who coordinates GAO’s work on stimulus programs.
* Lisa Schlosser, Director of the Office of Information Collection at the Environmental Protection Agency, who heads up EPA’s collection of environmental data submissions from state and local governments.

Just a few resource before I offer up some of what I took away from the conversation…

* On Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we managed to get Andrew McLauchlin, director of the CGI initiative, who gave us his insights on the session. Hear that conversation here.

Advertisement

* Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller was also at the session. You can read his full story — and hear it — here. And Amy and I spoke to him about what he learned from the session. Hear that conversation  here … particularly how the EPA is dealing with the approximately $7 billion in recovery act funding that it has to award — and track. The money quote from Miller’s story:

“The Recovery Act will illustrate some long standing problems with federal management,” says Paul Posner, a professor and the director of the Master’s in Public Administration program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“The information systems needed to carry out the transparency goal and help agencies work collaboratively will come under a lot of strain.”

* Federal Times reporter Gregg Carlstrom was also there and posted this story … And his lead actually captures the session nicely. “The $787 billion stimulus package requires unprecedented levels of transparency — and some federal managers and auditors are worried those requirements will place unfair scrutiny on their agencies,” Carlstrom writes.
* One of the documents that was discussed during the session was OMB’s recent guidance on the recovery spending and transparency . You can read the OMB guidance for yourself here.
* And, in full transparency, I posted my notes that I was taking during the session. Read them for yourself, if you dare. But remember — they are notes, so… not everything is spelled correctly or even coherent. But… you’re welcome to them.

Some of my take aways from what was a really excellent and insightful session.

* This is hard… It is important to remember that this has never been done before. This has never really been done before period, but this has really never been done before with this speed and at this scale and with this amount of focus. In fact, I would argue that there are few private sector organizations that could post near real time financial data. And it would be difficult enough if this was only federal agencies. That would be a Herculean task itself, but layer on the state, local and tribal organizations, grantees, and others… this is a monumental challenge.

* Transparency is additive… There was some conversation, as highlighted by Federal Times, that making raw data public could allow people to take data out of context. Trust is implicit intransparency . And most people are smart — at least most people who are going to dig through this kind of data. I think it would be very powerful for agencies to acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers — and acknowledge that they do, in fact, make mistakes. Data can be taken out of context, but it will be anyway. The best way to deal with that is to make data available in standard forms — seeDC’s Apps for Democracy — and, to quote Craig Newmark of Craig’s List fame — free the nerds.

* This is a unique time — and opportunity… I’ve been covering the federal government for a long time, and for as long as I can remember, we’ve been talking about information sharing and collaborating among the different levels of government. This isn’t easy. Schlosser noted that EPA has developed good lines of communication — mostly out of necessity, and over time — nearly a decade. (See the top bullet point about the speed.) That being said, There can be real lessons to learn here — and real opportunities.

* This isn’t easy for the overseers either… I often hear from the program people about the challenges. But Czerwinski noted that this isn’t easy for the oversight community either. Essentially, they are having to provide oversight as the plane is in flight. Auditors tend to like some hindsight. (He offered up one of my favorite quotes of the day: Auditors like to come in after the war and count the dead and bayonet the wounded. Yes, it is an exaggeration, but… it’s funny. There are challenges here across the board.

One other quote from McClure… He said many agencies are in a “transparency coma.” There is so much coming at they, they just really don’t know what to do next or where to go. I have described that as the government turtlesyndrome — govies don’t get in trouble for something that they don’t do. They generally get in trouble for something that they do, so when things get risky,govies have a tendency to disappear into their shell where it is safe, but where they are unable to get much done. There is a real concern that could happen, but there is also real opportunity. Paul noted that the OMB guidance on recovery and transparency is available for comment — in fact, he said, they welcome it. So offer up your thoughts.

It was interesting because there was a general consensus that everybody is pointed in the same direction — they want to spent stimulus money as efficiently, effectively and transparently as possible. The question — and challenge — is how to get there.

This is a challenging time, but it is also a time for real opportunities.

Thanks to CGI and George Mason University for an illustrative session.