Transparency: The Game Is Afoot

August 22nd

The Washington Post (Ed O’Keefe) reported that the Obama Administration took another step to give reality to its transparency policy.  The Administration continues to spend the money (nearly a trillion dollars) that was authorized in the stimulus bill.  Officials publish press releases and hold events to announce that they are spending the money on worthy causes.  They know how to do this; everyone who has served in government knows the routine.

But at the same time that this has been going on, plans have been moving forward to create transparency about what the money buys.  This means that at the same time that people in Washington are announcing that they are spending money, the grant recipients are going to publish – through the new technology of our time – where the money is going.  As O’Keefe reports, “a government Web site began accepting the spending and jobs data from grant recipients that will provide the first fact-based progress report about the economic recovery efforts.”

By mid-October the plan is for the data that is now being reported is going to be public.  This was the President’s promise.  Citizens will be able to know where every dollar went and what happened after it was spent.  But will they?  The concept is easier to describe than to imagine exactly what will happen.  “This is a game changer”, said one of the professional’s in this field, Donald F. Kettl, Dean of the public policy school of the University of Maryland.  The concept is that anyone will be able to go to and look up what happened to a specific grant.

So this raises a question or two.  The technology now makes this concept very doable.  The technical part, based on registering at a web site, creating data feeds and syndicating data to be collected by others, this is all pretty routine.  But its not routine at all for those who are the recipients of grants to will have to report what they are doing, to assess the results, to report it publicly and to deal with what happens next.  Dean Kettl candidly acknowledges that no one knows what will happen.

Each of the stages will be a challenge.  Knowing that you have to report, learning how to report the data – that will be a challenge for some.  Then knowing whether the reporting is accurate and if it is, what it means will be the most interesting part of the process.  Are the things that are being purchased with the money producing results?  Are the results worthy ones?

One debate that will most certainly come will be over whether the stimulus spending created jobs.  But jobs are only one of the goals of many of the programs.  And even if jobs are created, some will no doubt point out that they weren’t green jobs.  This may be one of the most trying challenges of all.  Will the world be mature enough to examine the extraordinary new data sources that is going to generate by the Gigabyte without demagoguery?

There might have been some suspicion that in spite the novelty of this new reporting system where the public will see the inner workings of government spending for the first time, it could be dreadfully boring.  What if no one comes to the party?  At this point, given the range of new sites and sourcing of information that has already been created, just the reverse seems likely.  Stay tuned.  This could become interesting.

The O’Keefe article from the Washington Post 8 21 09

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