Proving value of open government falls to agencies

Public exposure has its pitfalls

Agency officials are faced with the burden of proving President Barack Obama’s Open Government Initiative is worth the effort, according to a panel of experts.

Federal employees, especially those in the acquisition workforce, have been wary of a new system of openness and collaboration to add to their already overly complex procurement system, said Mary Davie, assistant Federal Acquisition Service commissioner for the Office of Integrated Technology Service at the General Services Administration.

“The first reaction we got was ‘No way,’ ” she said.

It leaves in leaders’ hands the tough challenge of changing viewpoints from deeper in the agency. Those major advocates of the movement have to show the benefits of openness and reaching out to industry, said Dave McClure, GSA’s associate administrator of the Office of Citizen Services.

Open-government supporters however must wrestle with showing whether the initiative is a burden or a value, he said.

“We have to ask that question,” McClure said, hosting a panel discussion at the Interagency Resources Management Conference, with Davie and several others.

One objection that many employees may cite is the criticism that comes with transparency. As agencies’ information goes out, the public finds errors, and officials are forced to deal with those inaccuracies, said Karen Lee, lead analyst for open government for federal spending transparency at the Office of Management and Budget.

“We had millions of eyes on our data,” she said, referring to Recovery.gov. Recovery.gov is a database of spending data about how the government spent the stimulus money from the American Recovery And Reinvestment Act. People found problems but the government corrected it, making agencies more accountable to what they issue to the public.

Federal employees have also raised concerns about information security, the number of people it takes to open their agencies, and the best way to manage what goes out, Lee said.

But the value is there.

When the acquisition workforce interacts with industry experts, it may take more time at the beginning of the buying process. Officials work on planning and setting requirements, even sharing a clearer picture of what they are attempting to buy. Afterward, though, the contract is more likely to come out closest to what was originally desired, officials agreed.

Patrice McDermott, director of the OpenTheGovernment.org, a watchdog group, said the public would benefit from more data because it shows how policies were formed and decisions made.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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