Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
Commentary
5/22/2009
09:45 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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The Transparency Shuffle: Don't Let Your Mouth Write A Check Your Actions Can't Cash

The White House for months has made grandiose promises of complete transparency into how it's spending taxpayer money, but the reality is proving to be much more murky and unclear. Before making such sweeping commitments, perhaps President Obama should have spoken with some CIOs who know full well the importance of underpromising and overdelivering.

The White House for months has made grandiose promises of complete transparency into how it's spending taxpayer money, but the reality is proving to be much more murky and unclear. Before making such sweeping commitments, perhaps President Obama should have spoken with some CIOs who know full well the importance of underpromising and overdelivering.Even the administration-friendly Washington Post has noticed the gap between what was promised and what's even close to being delivered: "But three months after the bill was signed, Recovery.gov offers little beyond news releases, general breakdowns of spending, and acronym-laden spreadsheets and timelines. And congressional Democrats, state officials and advocates of open government worry that the White House cannot come close to clearing the high bar it set."

Not surprisingly, the government bureaucrat charged with fulfilling the President's ambitious pledges sidesteps all accountability and rather defiantly suggests there's just nothing he can do. Tell me: how long do you think someone would last at your company if he expressed the type of attitude as does the bureaucrat who's in charge of stimulus oversight, one Earl E. Devaney of the Interior Department?

Devaney says the site will not post much spending data until October, when recipients must file their first full reports. "I'm not being particularly apologetic about where this site is today," he said. "I would be if someone could show me anything that has happened that isn't on this site."

Even once the first mass of information goes up, it will not be as granular as the White House has led people to expect. Devaney said the reporting requirements are simply not stringent enough to provide dollar-by-dollar tracking.

Then again, perhaps Devaney would try to explain away his "what, me worry?" attitude by pointing to the recent transparency-related actions of his ultimate boss, President Obama. As reported by another administration-friendly news organization, CNN, the President plans to sign today credit-card legislation that the House has just approved.

But as CNN writes, "One problem: this means the President will again break his campaign pledge to post legislation online for five days for the public to comb it over in the interest of transparency before he signs it into law." And in another example of how seriously Obama's transparency promises are being taken by those outside the administration, CNN was atypically direct in the headline it put over the story: "Obama signing Friday breaks transparency pledge."

So perhaps Transparency Tipstaff Devaney will point to that move and say that he's being at least as compliant as his big boss when it comes to letting in the sunshine of public access.

The impact of this for CIOs is clearly how to juggle (a) the strategic need for end-to-end visibility to allow everyone in the extended enterprise to be able to see what's really going on and make better decisions faster, with (b) the appropriate level of expectations for how quickly and how thoroughly human behavior, technology, and business processes can be changed to deliver the desired level of transparency.

For inspiration into finding that balance, Transparency Tipstaff Devaney should visit with Alex Sink, the CFO for the state of Florida, who says that Floridians can now track online the air-travel expenses of state officials. This new capability is part of a larger effort led by Sink called Florida's Checkbook, which the South Florida Business Journal describes as "a Web site that provides finance reports, fund balances, state and local receipts and disbursements, and contracts in an ongoing effort to show how Floridians' tax dollars are being spent."

And that's transparency you can believe in.

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