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Agencies must satisfy taxpayers' hunger for information

Jun. 13, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  

The federal government needs more windows.

At least that's what you might conclude after reading the open-government plans of the Defense and Energy departments and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Executive branch agencies crafted the plans as part of the Obama administration's open-government directive. In theory, the plans would outline steps each agency would take to increase transparency, participation and collaboration. But in practice, the plans provide few new mechanisms through which taxpayers can see how tax dollars are being spent.

The Project on Government Oversight evaluated the Defense, Energy and NRC plans as part of an independent audit led by OpenTheGovernment. org, and we've asked for revisions to those plans by June 25. Here are a few ways the agencies can rise to the challenge of the open-government directive.

Defense: Show us the money

The Pentagon's plan acknowledges public interest in contract spending a vast component of its budget and indicates plans to release more data about contracts and contractors. But Defense makes no mention of a timeframe for release, and makes no commitments as to which data it plans to publish. We have some specific recommendations.

First, Defense should release online the information it submits to the new FAPIIS database the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System which tracks contractor performance.

Second, it should release online the reports created by the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.

Third, Defense should grant public online access to its revolving door database, which contains ethics opinions for new hires and for officials who accept paid positions with Defense contractors. A similar database was available to the public in the 1990s why not open up this version? Granting public access to this information would help restore trust in Defense's acquisition system.

Energy: Put PEP (and PER) in your step

The Energy Department plan indicates it would share general information with other agencies and the public, specifically targeting students and teachers. But Energy apparently has no plans to release vital information concerning contractors that help manage the nuclear weapons complex. These contractors consume a massive portion roughly two-thirds of Energy's budget.

To help the public determine if these tax dollars are being well-spent, Energy should begin again to release Performance Evaluation Plans (PEPs) and Performance Evaluation Reports (PERs) as they become available and post them online. Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration creates these materials to assess the effectiveness of contractors that manage nuclear materials. In a move seemingly at odds with the executive branch's push for transparency, NNSA decided in October that it would delay the public release of PEPs and PERs until three years after the end of a contract.

NRC: Where's Jaczko?

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission earned a relatively high score on our independent audit of open-government plans. But there's still room for improvement.

The NRC has taken a good first step toward transparency by publishing a list of Chairman Gregory Jaczko's meetings and other events. It should publish online the calendars of its other commissioners, who also meet with industry officials.

Second, NRC should publish contracts, statements of work and other contracting materials online. NRC demonstrated an interest in sharing contract information in earlier steps required by the open-government directive: It designated as "a high-value dataset" a list of commercial contracts valuing over $100,000. But much of the information listed was already available on federal spending databases. NRC needs to take the next step and release enhanced information.

Bottom line: Taking the first-step measures outlined above would help agencies meet the standards in the open-government directive, and help build public trust in the federal government, correct inefficiencies and, ultimately, help agencies fulfill their core mission.

Angela Canterbury is director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight and Bryan Rahija is POGO's blog editor.

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