Transparency is here, but what is it?

Contracting community called on to define it, embrace it and recognize its benefits.

Transparency in government is here to stay and although the concept still must be defined and clarified, the contracting community needs to embrace it and recognize its benefits.

That was the conclusion of a panel of contracting experts speaking at the Washington Technology Top 100 conference Wednesday.

“It’s here. Be a realist and be prepared for implementing transparency,” said Ted Buford, senior vice president and program manager of the governmentwide acquisition contracts and General Services Administration Schedules at CACI International Inc.

However, he said, “Anytime you introduce a subject or topic like transparency, it’s going to have some challenges.”

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He said the concept of transparency as outlined by President Barack Obama – the rapid release of information that the public can easily find and use – is very different from simply releasing mountains of data.

Those challenges include finding a common definition of transparency and understanding what the concept means to contractors, government agencies and the public at large.

“Will we know when we’ve achieved transparency?” he asked, “and how do we measure the success of transparency?”

Nevertheless, Buford said, “The benefits to the public, which is where this [concept] is particularly addressed, are going to be beneficial [also] to the agencies and to contractors” because a lot of data will be processed into meaningful information.

Transparency should eschew anecdotal type decision-making and promote fact-based research and informed decision-making, Buford said. That should result in better, more efficient work from contractors and their agency clients.

“Armed with the information from transparency, Congress, policy-makers and other decision-makers should be better informed and that could result in improved legislation and improved regulations, improved processes and procedures.”

The key element is how we define transparency, said Linda Berdine, president and chief executive officer of G&R Solutions. “It’s not defined. It’s going to take a lot to get it defined, and there are a lot of bumps in the road to get there.”

But Mike Fox, senior vice president of corporate strategic development at SRA International Inc., said he was concerned that the government won’t be as transparent as it wants its contractors to be.

Fox cited the current challenges surrounding the cybersecurity initiative and the push for information-sharing between the public and private sectors. “It is purely a one-way street,” he said.

Industry is providing lots of data on potential threats to networks and infrastructure, which “just kind of goes into a black hole and none of that information ever comes back from government.”

“My concern is that we as contractors have a tremendous amount of proprietary data that is key to our business,” said Fox. That data is already subjected to government disclosure from laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.

“I am afraid that we will be asked to provide more and more, which could in some ways jeopardize parts of our business without potentially gaining the benefits back of government being transparent,” he said.

Ed O’Hare, assistant commissioner of the Office of Integrated Technology Services at the GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, said the Obama administration’s position is “openness and transparency are non-negotiable.”

He said the government is putting action behind its words and that “speed is important. Get it up quickly.”

O’Hare said transparency “will not just be protests.” It will encourage public comment on programs, acquisition strategy and contracts.

“We’re already seeing that,” he said, and he is preparing his staff for transparency and the increased workload it will entail.

About the Author

David Hubler is the former print managing editor for GCN and senior editor for Washington Technology. He is freelance writer living in Annandale, Va.

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