Two Governments

Transparency and the alternate universe of federal spending.

In April 1861, Jonathan Dillon was working in a shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, fixing a pocket watch for a rather important client-President Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly, the shop's owner interrupted him with the news that the Civil War had begun. Dillon, officials at the Smithsonian Institution confirmed earlier this year, memorialized the occasion by etching an inscription inside the casing of Lincoln's watch:

"Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861. Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date thank God we have a government."

Nearly 150 years later, in a different kind of dark hour, many people are offering their thanks that we have a government-or maybe, when you think about it, two governments.

After Congress approved President Obama's massive economic stimulus package in April, John M. Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government, noted that the massive spending effort set up a kind of alternate universe of federal spending. The $787 billion in funds included in the 2009 American Recovery and Re-investment Act is fairly close to the annual discretionary federal budget. And the new money must be accounted for separately from other funds.

No fewer than eight levels of reporting are required under the law, and no less than $300 million was allocated for efforts to oversee how stimulus funds are being spent.

"There is a risk of creating, at least on paper, a parallel government-the regular government and the stimulus government," Kamensky wrote.

There's also the risk that doubling down on the size and scope of government will make it more difficult to implement the Obama administration's push for "transparency" in federal operations. In our cover story, reporter Andrew Noyes examines just what this buzzword actually means. Right now, not surprisingly, there are more questions than answers.

A Government Executive survey shows that while there is broad consensus among top federal managers that transparency involves making data available to nongovernmental groups, there's less support for nitty-gritty measures such as supplying the names of top-level policymakers.

One of Obama's first acts as president was to order the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration, along with a new federal chief technology officer, to prepare a directive outlining the administration's open government principles by May 21. But as of mid-March, of those three jobs, only the OMB post was filled with an Obama appointee.

The president has placed a huge bet on transparency. Whether or not it pays off will depend on the leaders of the regular government and the stimulus government getting a clear message about what's expected of them.

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