The Paradox of Transparency

In his memo on transparency and open government, President Barack Obama said:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Obama made a down payment on that transparency promise by hiring Vivek Kundra, the CTO of Washington D.C., for the new post of government CIO. Kundra’s visionary application of technology to the procurement process had attracted national attention, and with the centerpiece of his plans to give the public a view into how stimulus money was being spent, it looked like we were off to a good start.

Then reality intervened. Last week, the FBI raided the offices of Kundra’s former employer, the Office of the CTO in Washington D.C., arresting a mid-level manager and the head of a long-time IT contracting firm who were involved in a bribery and kickback scheme. The White House promptly suspended Kundra, three days into his new job as Federal CIO, “out of an abundance of caution,” despite the fact that the FBI made clear that Kundra was not a target of the investigation, and that the corrupt official in question, Yusuf Acar, had been working for the city since 2002, well before Kundra took on the job in 2007.

While Acar’s frauds were not revealed by technological means, but by an old-fashioned whistleblower, they are exactly the kind of procurement shenanigans that Kundra set out to uncover in D.C. Without talking to CW (the “Cooperating Witness”, as he was named in the FBI request for an arrest warrant), it’s impossible to know what role Kundra’s emphasis on cleaning up the DC procurement process played in encouraging the whistleblowing, but this conviction is certainly in line with Kundra’s goals, as stated in his December 2007 testimony at the Public Roundtable on Theft and Fraud Prevention in District Government Agencies (pdf).

The paradox of transparency is that it may indeed reveal waste, fraud, and malfeasance, making things appear worse before they begin to get better. This is not something to be afraid of. It’s a sign of success.

Nonetheless, the political atmosphere in Washington has grown so sensitive that the Obama administration initially felt the need to distance itself from Kundra, lest they be touched by even the faintest whiff of the D.C. scandal.

We need to make sure that the transparency mission is not going to be hijacked by political considerations. What cabinet secretary, what governor, what mayor, what IT manager in local government, what supplier will support the Federal transparency initiative if whatever is uncovered will have to be weighed against the risk that the other party will take advantage?

We need a bipartisan commitment to transparency. It’s ridiculous to think that we won’t turn up things that we don’t like, but we need the message to be: we’re all in this together. We need to make sure that transparency doesn’t become a political weapon, or “out of an abundance of caution,” we’ll abandon the mission before it has a chance to succeed.

Fortunately, we saw news today that as of today, Kundra is back at his White House desk.

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