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Making government more transparent

The relationship between government and citizen is in a fragile state. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey reports that just 22 percent believe they can trust the federal government almost always or most of the time – one of the lowest measures in half a century. Increasingly, the public is demanding greater visibility into government decisions, actions and results – particularly those involving their tax dollars. They are also calling for higher levels of accountability. The public wants to have confidence that the government is making and implementing sound decisions.

The need for transparency
In his first full day in office, President Barack Obama embraced the importance of transparency by issuing a memo ordering the development of an open-government directive to make government open and accountable. The president declared that:

  • Government should be transparent. Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.
  • Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the government's effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.
  • Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Amercans in the work of their government.

By taking this action, President Obama expressed his belief that the government could begin to win back the public trust, strengthen democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.

Open to the public

The US government continues to take important steps to become more open, transparent and accountable by providing data and information to the public. Here are three recent examples:

  • – This site gives taxpayers easy access to user-friendly tools to track spending data related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 and allows for reporting of potential fraud, waste and abuse.
  • – As a priority open-government initiative for the Obama administration, this site increases the ability of the public to find, download and use data sets generated and held by the federal government.
  • – As required by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) of 2006, this site provides access to government spending data.

What does transparency mean?
Transparency means demonstrating that decisions are fact-based and use complete, relevant data. However, obtaining the accurate and timely data needed is often perceived as insurmountable or costly because it is typically spread across multiple agencies or departments. Many government managers feel that making a decision that's partially based on facts is the best that can be done. Getting all the right data may have been difficult or costly in the past, but it is becoming less of an issue – or excuse – today.

Making knowledge powerful
Good, fact-based decisions can't be made without good data to start with. Technology plays a pivotal role as the government moves toward becoming more open and transparent. Data cleansing and preparation techniques combined with advanced analytical technologies – such as data and text mining–are allowing government agencies to analyze and share insights more efficiently and accurately than ever before.

"There are solutions available today that allow government agencies to lower the cost of capturing and producing information needed to make quality, fact-based decisions," says John Stultz, an analytical consultant at SAS.

"These tools can bring data from many disparate systems and in many different information formats into an environment where you can extract it, cleanse it, transform it and load it so that it becomes 'analytically ready' for decision making."

Creating this capability can help to reduce public mistrust that sometimes occurs when different government agencies put out conflicting information.
"By having a capability to capture data from many different sources and then trust the content used for analysis," Stultz says, "the government can present 'one version of the truth' to the various stakeholders interested in obtaining relevant information."

The value of transparency
The US Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate is a firm believer in openness and transparency, says Greg Cohen, Chief of Business Management and Metrics. The Coast Guard manages a multibillion-dollar investment portfolio that includes multiple programs and 22 major acquisition projects. SAS® is helping the agency bring all of its accounting data together to give its managers as well as its congressional overseers insights they never had before.

"We have three accounting systems," says Cohen. "We can now look at five or six years of data in real time. We never had that capability before."

Possessing that insight allows the Coast Guard to better manage acquisition resources. For example, Cohen explains, "It used to be that if an executive wanted to know what the financial status of a project was, they would put in a data call, everyone would run around, and two weeks later you would get an answer back, and it probably was wrong."

"Now those reports are e-mailed to hundreds of people on a weekly basis. So everyone knows the status and we can manage the money and project much more efficiently," relates Cohen.

This is critical in times of tight budgets where Congress and the president's administration are looking to cut programs. When congressional requests come in on program or project status, the Coast Guard can confidently answer them with fact-based, up-to-date information.

Being able to see accounting information in real time also makes the Coast Guard programs more accountable, says Cohen, which is a good thing from a taxpayer perspective.

Cohen emphasizes that being able to ask the right questions, and having the right information, are keys to being open and transparent. Plus, that information is also critical for showing stakeholders – Congress, the public and the media – what and why something is being done by the Coast Guard.

Renewing public trust
The public mistrusts government because all too often they don't have insights into how decisions are being made, or who is responsible for making them - so they naturally believe the worst. In this new age of transparency and accountability, governments need access to the right information to make sound decisions.

Moving forward, embracing a fact-based decision approach - utilizing technologies available today - will greatly help in creating a more open government and renewing  public trust.

Bio: LaVerne Durham is an Industry Marketing Manager with SAS. She is responsible for developing marketing and sales strategies to address complex problems facing government agencies.


* Editor's note:  Robert Charette, President of consulting firm ITABHI Corp., contributed to this article.

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