BMWs, Limos, & Bad Data: Why Transparency 1.0 is Going to Suck

On Monday, the kind folks at Government Executive asked me to sit on a panel to discuss Collaboration & Open Government.  My co-panelist, Gwynne Kostin, the Director of the Center for New Media and Citizen Engagement at the U.S. General ServicesAdministration, presciently mentioned one of the biggest barriers to collaboration:  the "Washington Post Test."  To paraphrase Gwynne, government employees are raised on the idea that every action they take can survive the scrutiny of appearing on the front page of the Post.  Someone in the audience asked us, how can we overcome this innate paranoia when it comes to sharing data and collaborating?  I said, "I don't have any good news for you.  I know how tough it is to be a government executive right now and you're going to come under a ton of scrutiny, no matter what.  All you can do is strap on your armor, go forth, and do."

 

Little did we know how quickly those words would be put to the test.  That very morning, with high fanfare, the Post launched a multi-part series on "Top Secret America", delving into the massive and growing bureaucracy, building, and spending that has accompanied the Post-9/11 national security complex.

 

By Wednesday I was already fielding calls and complaints.  "See?!?," folks complained, "This is what we get from transparency!"  Skewed reporting where not even the basic facts are right, not to mention the underlying color commentary.  Brace yourself for Congressional hearings, GAO investigations, and cub-reporters trying to make their bones on the next round of "gotcha games."

 

Well, the Post did get some of its facts wrong, that's true.  Who is Eric Saars and where does he work?  Why is the government hiring all these "overpaid" contractors and giving them BMWs?  Don't these idiots know they don't need these redundant programs?

  • Eric Saars.  In Part 2 of the series on "National Security Inc." the Post profiles a Mr. Eric Saars, an expert in Web 2.0 in the National MIlitary Command Center.  The Post makes it seem like Mr. Saars works for SRA International when in fact he works for a sub-contractor (full disclosure:  I know this because my wife works at a subsidiary of SRA). 
  • BMWs.  The Post also skews its facts about the relative cost of employing a private contractor vs. a government employee, saying that it costs 25% more.  Anyone that's worked in government procurement knows this is an unfair comparison.  Many government contracts aren't done on a "time and materials basis" so the annual salaries of employees aren't directly comparable and in fact over the course of an employee's career a government employee can cost up to 30% more than a private contractor when pension and benefits are figured in. 
  • Redundancy.  The reporters also detail a lot of what they claim are redundant programs.  But, by their own admission, they can't really assess everything ibecause much of it remains classified.

 

All those errors, omissions, and biases aside, the Post is still doing its job and shining a light on an area in much need of scrutiny.  One very wise government contractor pointed out, "This is just what Transparency 1.0 is going to look like."  We've been going and will continue to go through the same kind of agonizing scrutiny with Recovery.gov and countless other programs.  The data isn't right in many cases.  The reporters aren't fair.  The public is gong to be outraged.

 

But none of those are reasons to stop.  They're reasons to strap on your armor, go forth, and do.  Of course national security secrets need to be protected -- as do industrial ones.  But in a time when trust in government and big business lie at absolute rock bottom, now is the time to shine the light ourselves, get the data right, and tell the whole story.

 

No, the Post won't be splashing headlines when the data gets fixed.  But what gets measured gets done.  So it's time to keep measuring, keep reporting, and keep scrutinizing.

 

The other thing I said during that GovExec panel is that when I go to Asia and meet with government and industry officials there, it's clear they think Americans are nuts.  They would never deal with problems the way we do.  Everything seems much more orderly and gets dealt more quickly.  As a result, a bit of a panic has set in over here in the US.  Maybe they've got a better system, a better way of dealing with the massive problems that beset human societies.  Here's what I know, though:  autocracies will always, always out-perform democracies in the short-term; but democracies will always, always out-perform autocracies in the long-run. 

 

How do I know?  I know because we have the Washington Post and the New York Times, and CNN, and MSNBC... and we have a dedicated cadre of civil servants, military personnel, and government contractors willing to stand up to their scrutiny.  We put our biggest, ugliest problems on the front page and we deal with them.  In Asia, God only knows what's lurking behind closed doors.

 

We're living through the pain of Transparency 1.0.  So let's accelerate the move to Transparency 2.0.  Strap on your armor, go forth, and do.  Who's ready?

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