Devaney shares lessons learned about transparency, openness

Wednesday - 4/7/2010, 8:00pm EDT

Earl Devaney, chairman, Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board

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By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor
Federal News Radio

A turning point has been made when it comes to the Open Government Initiative.

As Federal News Radio has been telling you, cabinet level federal agencies on Wednesday released their plans to comply with the Initiative.

Now that the plans are in place, however, some are wondering how these agencies will take the next step toward actually becoming more open and transparent.

Earl Devaney, chairman of the Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board, said there are many lessons learned that federal agencies should pay attention to as they begin to implement their plans.

"Transparency is painful sometimes. It's easier to talk about than it is to practice. Embarrassment is almost a natural extension of transparency. You really can't be transparent and open if you, at the same time, don't want to ever take the chance of being embarrassed. Agencies, as they move toward transparency, are going to have to accept the fact that, on occasion, in the name of transparency, they're going to put things out that they're not totally comfortable with."

The Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board had to deal with this itself when it came to light that incorrect, and sometimes inexistent, Congressional districts were listed on recovery.gov.

"It was embarrassing to a lot of people at a lot of different levels. It was embarrassing to us as a board for somebody to come in and put a bogus or made up congressional district, and we not have any sort of technical ability to stop that. So, we fixed that the next time out, but I think, quite frankly, people who just made up a district just to put it in and go onto the next field should be embarrassed about that. . . . Was that easy to find? Yeah, I think it was, and I think it was easy to find because put it out there right under everyone's nose to see."

It did, however, drive the board to fix the problem, which is essential when being more open. It also drove officials to develop better methods of checking data, which, in turn, changed the behavior of everyone involved and ultimately increased accuracy.

"We fixed it. The recipients are being more careful [about] what they put in. I'm assuming that agencies are doing a better job at policing the data than they did before. So, it's painful but I'd say it has a positive effect. Ultimately, what I think, is that, as we have these reporting quarters unfold, we're going to get better and better."

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden discussed a presidential memorandum regarding such reporting, stating that agencies should be further intensifying their efforts when it comes to reporting compliance by recipients of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Devaney explained that there are no enforcement mechanisms in the law to use as retaliation if a recipient doesn't report; thus, the memo was sent to agency heads, encouraging them to take action if someone isn't reporting in.

"We're ratcheting it up a little bit here. I think the shame thing or the embarrassment factor that we're using probably will drive -- I hope -- some of the folks that haven't been reporting to come in. We're in the middle of a reporting period right now. We don't know yet, but we will shortly, whether some of those people decided that it's time to report now. They'll come off the list if they do, and, if they don't, then I'm presuming that the agencies will now start moving to take some action, particularly with people who have never reported."

Devaney explained that there is a distinction to be made between awards that haven't been reported and recipients that haven't been reported.

"For instance, one recipient might have five or six awards. So, if you look at the awards alone, and you look at our list of awards that haven't reported [during] the first two reporting periods, there's about 310 on that list. That does not mean 310 recipients -- it could be [a smaller number] of recipients."

The new memo is meant to encourage agencies that are having trouble to ask for tips from their peers. He said some haven't had many problems at all, while others are really struggling. For the most part, however, agencies are somewhere in the middle when it comes to tracking the money.

"We have a listing of what they've done to try to see why [recipients] aren't reporting. Sometimes we see, you know, 'emailed twice', 'called three times, no response', which basically means, in my mind, that the recipient is sort of blowing off everybody. . . . It does tell me that they're using every tool that they have -- to email, to call, to try to use the mechanisms that have been in place. Some of these programs, especially the ones that are getting an extra dose of money, the infrastructure's in place and the people in the agencies know the people that they're giving the money to . . . and those conversations are a lot easier to have, than money that's going into a program that hasn't existed before."