Editor's Desk | OMB's tools for transparency

Commentary: President-elect Barack Obama should take a look at programs the Bush administration started to open some government functions to public scrutiny

One of the central tenets of President-elect Barack Obama’s agenda is his call to “create a transparent and connected democracy”— one that “opens up government to its citizens” and “brings government into the 21st century” through the use of technology.

That call resonates with a lot of people — especially given the Bush administration’s reputation for working behind closed doors.

However, when it comes to making information about federal programs and spending available to the public, the new administration might want to acknowledge the groundwork laid by the outgoing administration.

The Office of Management and Budget deserves at least some credit for its use of Web technology in introducing www.expectmore.gov, www.usaspending.gov, and earmarks.omb.gov, which allow Americans to access and analyze substantial volumes of federal investment and performance information.

Of course, OMB’s intentions weren’t entirely altruistic. The sites were designed in part to expose to the sunshine of public scrutiny wasteful spending practices beyond the administration’s reach.

The earmarks site is a particularly intriguing example of a new age approach to checks and balances. Its premise: empower citizens and businesses with information to help fight against what the site describes as instances where Congress “circumvents the merit-based or competitive allocation process…or otherwise curtails the ability of the executive branch to properly manage funds.”

The most recent contribution to come from a supposedly lame duck administration is called VUE-IT, a thoughtful tool with a typically inelegant name: Visualization for Understanding Expenditures in Information Technology.

VUE-IT provides a series of online lenses that enables viewers to focus on how federal IT investment dollars are being spent — and identifies which IT projects are on OMB’s Management Watch and High-Risk lists. The former tracks poor-performing projects in need of improvement; the latter tracks projects where success is critical.

Launched in late October on www.egov.gov, VUE-IT has its limitations. It does a better job making IT investments visible than transparent. In praising OMB’s efforts, Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), chairman of a Senate government affairs subcommittee, nevertheless observed that without greater trending data, it’s easy to miss project failures in the making, such as the Census Bureau’s handheld device fiasco. OMB’s Karen Evans, administrator for electronic government and IT, said improvements are already in the pipeline.

Still, Carper also saw in VUE-IT a tool with the potential to help monitor all major capital expenditures. That of course, will be up to the next Administration. At least it won’t have to start from scratch.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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