Government Technologist: Silicon Valley Goes Opaque

TechAmerica's closed-door annual conference around the U.S. government's IT spending plans is out of step with the Obama administration's transparency push.
The IT industry is dangerously out of touch with President Obama's 'open government' initiative. I would make this point directly to the industry's movers and shakers, but I can't get into their big closed door meeting.

One of tech's most influential trade associations, TechAmerica Foundation, is holding its 45th annual Vision conference in Springfield, Va., on Oct. 21 and 22. Highlights will include a five-year forecast of IT spending by federal agencies and a ten-year forecast of Department of Defense spending. Those projections are based on analysis done by TechAmerica members who meet directly with government agencies to discuss their plans. It's "the most authoritative, well-referenced market forecast in the industry," says TechAmerica, whose 1,500 member companies include Dell, Google, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle, Symantec, VMware, and other major vendors.

The report will be the buzz of TechAmerica's 2009 Vision Conference, but the event is off limits to all news media and, by extension, to the general public. Federal CIO Vivek Kundra and deputy secretary of defense William Lynn will be featured speakers, but we won't hear what they or dozens of other experts have to say about the tech and defense spending plans of the federal government.

This kind of old-boy networking may have once had its place, but it's a bad fit in an environment where openness is the new mantra. Obama's soon-to-be-released Open Government Directive will require federal agencies to devise processes and to outline specific actions they will take, including opening government databases, to enable more transparent, collaborative, and participatory government.

The behind-closed-door information sharing at TechAmerica's event doesn't jibe with that mandate. I've offered TechAmerica a chance to explain; so far, no response. The organization will be holding a phone briefing for the media in advance of its event, but that's not the same thing as being there in person.

TechAmerica's blue chip member companies are swimming against the tide of open government, and it's not just their "non-attribution" get-togethers with government officials that smack of self interest. A few weeks ago, TechAmerica testified before Congress on the risks of government transparency. The issue? The Obama administration wants to create more open databases of federal contract information, and TechAmerica is throwing up a warning flag.

The group cites legitimate concerns about public disclosure of proprietary information and intellectual property, but it undermines its own argument with fear mongering. TechAmerica points menacingly to "unintended consequences" of government contract transparency, including exposure of national security information, reduced competition, and more limited access to private sector innovation. (Read TechAmerica's Sept. 29 testimony here.)

Everyone agrees that the federal acquisition and contracting databases need improvement, so it's appropriate for TechAmerica to weigh in on how best to do that. The problem is that TechAmerica is leaning in the direction of "less is more" when the government is looking, simply, for more contract information to improve its own decision making and public access to what's going on.

This all leaves the impression that the IT industry, which could be helping to lead the open government movement, is dragging its heels. Gov 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly sees "a huge opportunity" for Silicon Valley and the rest of the IT industry to engage Washington in the delivery of new, Web-enabled services. O'Reilly, in a conversation in August, told me that "the techies" and "the govvies" are learning how to work together toward that end.

A good starting point would be for group discussions between the IT industry and government agencies to take place in open venues, not closed-door, not-for-attribution events. TechAmerica thinks of itself as "the leading voice for the U.S. technology industry," but its voice can't be heard, or questioned, under these circumstances.

John Foley is editor of InformationWeek Government. You can follow me on Twitter.

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