Editorial: A good risk to take

Risk management is an increasingly popular topic in the federal community, but risk avoidance is still the rule. That's why it was so refreshing to hear Government Accountability Office officials announce a project that shows both imagination and daring.

At the request of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), GAO analysts studied the idea of creating a system that could crunch reams of economic and social indicators to create something of a national barometer — a Web-based system for evaluating the state of the state. It is within the realm of possibility, they determined, although it would not be easy.

Indeed, the risk of failure is real. There's no shortage of data to analyze, nor is there a dearth of technology to analyze it. But how do you develop a system that turns all that data into a reliable gauge of the nation's health?

The success of any analytical system hinges on the logic that underpins its design. The logic in this case would involve numerous social and political assumptions that could be the subject of endless scrutiny and debate. For the developers involved, it might be like holding a lightning rod on a stormy day in Texas.

Clearly, the project would entail an unusual type of risk because a perfectly functional system could still be viewed as a failure. But although it is possible that the goal of the system — assessing the health of the country overall — still may not be met, it is worth the time, energy and effort to test the theory. GAO officials could have skirted the political dangers by concluding that the likelihood of success did not merit the effort and expense the project would require. But they did not.

The fact is that government officials are often rewarded for taking risks only if they succeed. That makes a certain amount of sense because they are using taxpayers' money.

Still, federal employees are stewards not just of public funds but of public interests, and they should be given the slack they need to try new ideas that would serve the public good. They should not necessarily be viewed as failures if indeed they fail, as long as they managed the risks. Mismanagement should be punished but not risk-taking.

The GAO study is another reminder of all the possibilities that a vibrant technology industry creates. In this era of rapid change, the real danger is maintaining the status quo.

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