Transparency Trap

Opening the book on government operations could cause major headaches for federal managers.

Earl Devaney has launched a revolution. A transparency revolution.

Devaney has spent his career keeping Uncle Sam honest, first as an investigator at various agencies, then as the inspector general at the Interior Department, and now as the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the oversight agency that is tracking spending under the $787 billion economic stimulus package signed into law in February 2009. Devaney said a few months later that he hoped his oversight board's Web site would be a prototype for government transparency in the future, helping Americans see how their tax dollars were being spent. Indeed, he said he hoped the site would help create "millions of citizen IGs."

On Recovery.gov, people can track hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts, grants and loans under the federal stimulus package. They can look at spending in their towns and counties and compare the distribution of dollars in all 50 states. Companies can review contracts that were awarded without competition to see whether they were given a proper chance to bid. This unprecedented transparency has triggered about 200 investigations into potential wrongdoing associated with the money.

The site also has generated hundreds of news articles about problems with the data and questionable projects, creating a messy and controversial picture of the Recovery Act's effects on the economy. Proponents of the stimulus package complain that Devaney should have made sure the data was clean before releasing it to the public, since critics have used mistakes in the data to challenge the Recovery effort's effectiveness. Many news outlets, for example, reported stimulus dollars had been spent in "phantom" congressional districts, because some organizations that received funds entered incorrect information for the district labels.

Anyone who expected increased transparency to improve the public's view of government should take note of a CBS News/New York Times poll published in February that found a stunningly low 6 percent of Americans believed the stimulus had created jobs. That is not a typo. It really was 6 percent.

That kind of feedback doesn't exactly inspire confidence that transparency is worth the effort for federal managers. Why bother with openness when the result is people will be less supportive of your efforts?

The fact is transparency is here to stay. Now that the government is posting spending information in such great detail on Recovery.gov, there's no turning back. So the question is, how do managers avoid the transparency trap so openness doesn't come back to bite them? Maybe the government can't just dump its data on the public and expect people to make sense of it.

Instead, federal managers will have to begin experimenting with methods of engaging the public to help answer questions and clear up misunderstandings associated with the new openness. Linda Travers and Sanjeev Bhagowalia, the federal technology officials who run the Data.gov Web site, have created one model-a blog on which visitors offer ideas and ask questions about the way the site is organized and how it could be improved.

So will the revolution that Earl Devaney started work? The answer isn't yet clear. But perhaps transparency needs to be coupled with engagement.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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