Kundra Calls for Participation, Visibility, Accountability

SPECIAL REPORT: Transparent Government Solutions

By Jeff Erlichman, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra is leading government transparency and open government initiatives.

Transparent: adjective – free from pretense or deceit; easily detected or seen through; readily understood; characterized by visibility or accessibility of information especially concerning business practices.

Transparency: noun – the quality or state of being transparent.
Source: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

The public wants – and has always had the right – to know. But B.I. (Before Internet), it was often hard to get publicly available information, because it was in print form only, or only available if you came to Washington, DC or it just took a long time to get a response to a FOIA request.

The Internet has changed all that and today our government is not only promising, but actively becoming a leader of the transparency and open government movement often referred to as Government 2.0, powered by Web 2.0 technologies.

A powerful new voice in this transparency movement made his first public comments on March 12, 2009. A standing room only audience of government and industry managers and technologists filled the hall at FOSE 2009 to hear the first public words of Vivek Kundra, recently named the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the White House by President Obama.

1105 Government Information Group Custom Media listened as Kundra reminded the audience that one of the first acts in President Obama's administration was to sign a memorandum about transparency and open government.  And that transparency is going to be one of the key agenda items that will drive the Administration.

“What is transparency? What does transparency in open government look like?” asked Kundra. In his answer he urged the audience to visit http://www.recovery.gov and see the Administration's model at work.

(This is) “a leading indicator of what you can expect from this administration in terms of engaging citizens, making sure that we put information out there in the public domain and a different worldview of what it means to be a citizen.... [What] the idea of citizenship in terms of civic participation and transparency or open government allows you to do is to embrace the notion that the government is about we the
people and that it's taxpayer dollars that are being spent,” declared Kundra.

Participation, visibility, accountability are central pillars of what transparency provides.  Kundra says it allows people to participate in the public civic process, to look at where their money is going, how it's being spent and to hold the government officials accountable.

Tracking where the money is going is only one element of transparency.  Full disclosure of government rule making and how government programs are operating are two others, but there are many, many more – and many, many more waiting to be discovered.

“If you look at what happened when data has been democratized, when data has been put in the public domain, you've had an explosion of innovation.”
Vivek Kundra, Federal CIO, The White House

Kundra further told the audience that another model they can expect to see is the idea of a Data.gov platform.  How important is this? It changes the mindset of government – meaning that information will be published with the core assumption that data should be open and available to the people, rather than being held out of the public domain.

“If you look at what happened when data has been democratized, when data has been put in the public domain, you've had an explosion of innovation,” Kundra explained.

Engaging Citizens
During his talk Kundra spoke about the four central pillars anchoring Administration efforts – transparency, engaging citizens, lowering the cost of government operations and finding the innovative path.

“You're beginning to see this with what the New Media team is doing on http://www.WhiteHouse.gov, which is opening up the government and at the same time allowing people to engage in terms of the public debate,” added Kundra.

Central to transparency are Web 2.0 technologies. As government turns more and more to these social networking and collaborative tools, Kundra is calling on a governmentwide effort to “re-engineer on the back end, not the technologies but the staff and the teams within agencies to make sure that they're better positioned to take advantage of some of these technologies and drive hard in that direction.”

With a government that has more than 4 million federal staffers and more that 10,000 IT systems, this is not going to happen overnight.

The old sayings “Rome wasn't built in a day” and “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” really apply here, because this isn't going to be easy. And there are issues to overcome. Some are generational and one is especially in the area of security as Web 2.0 tools put more strain on agency infrastructures and security policies.

This puts the onus on government security leaders to develop high level strategies and practical policies that view threats as a whole; ones that hinge on having a total security architecture; ones where managing risk becomes acceptable and is the norm; ones where there is a balance between collaboration and social networking and legitimate security concerns; and ones where the security focus shifts from
protecting the perimeter to protecting data at rest and in motion. 

At the same time, as a result of the Stimulus Package, government is creating thousands of jobs, putting added pressure on identity management capabilities to coordinate identities across systems.

So, if there are going to be information exchanges and collaborations in the spirit of openness between agencies, then it is essential to protect data already in the system. At the same time it is imperative that when agencies use “social networking” and other collaborative tools, people are confident that the person or the machine they are communicating with is authenticated.

Expert Views
In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama and Senator Tom Coburn introduced legislation requiring the full disclosure of all organizations receiving federal funds through an online database operated by OMB. The result was the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 which created www.USAspending.gov.  Now there is a site where can view online basically all federal contracts, and you can see how much has been spent, you can see the actual contracts of where the money is going.

After the 2006 elections, House Democrats pledged they would enact legislation to “restore accountability, honesty, and openness at all levels of government.” The result was the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which requires that information about earmarks be published on a public, searchable Web site forty-eight hours before a vote can be taken on the bill containing the earmarks.

These laws and much of the transparency focus has been, due to the economy and current events, on “following the money”.  But just as essential is a transparency and openness between the federal government and their state and local counterparts and between government agencies themselves about a host of topics. There is so much to be gained through the new mantra which espouses the “responsibility to share”.

What could be written about transparency is almost limitless. What this Snapshot does is approach the topic from the perspective of those intimately involved in making the promise of open government a promise that government will keep.

In the Special Report, you'll read about the efforts of Greg Elin, open government evangelist from the Sunlight Foundation; Jerry Brito, senior research fellow at George Mason University and Teresa Nasif, the acting deputy associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services at GSA. Plus you'll find a host of resources you can use to begin your transparency and open government efforts.