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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Promise of Transparency

"One of the underlying strengths of the U.S. economy - and perhaps its most vital lesson amid world economies - is the important role transparency plays in the marketplace.

You don't need to be an economist to recognize that investment capital flows wherever in the world it is most welcome relative to the risk.

There are many reasons why the U.S. remains so attractive to capital: The Great Depression, for one, prompted many new governmental safeguards for investors.

There's the spirit and agility of our people, who continually reinvent the enterprises that drive our economy. And there's a history of commitment to an open marketplace, protected by the rule of law, however flawed, that has yielded superior returns.

That's not to ignore to a growing unease. Many believe those advantages may be waning. And the headlines and lessons that wrought Sarbanes-Oxley remind us that transparency and reliability are two different things. Still, the correlation between transparency and investor confidence in the U.S. - and the associated economic vitality they foster - compared to markets elsewhere in the world is hard to ignore.

That lesson, in part, is what makes the transparency of ExpectMore.gov one of the most intriguing, if not significant, management experiments to come out of government in many years.

The Web site, launched last February by the Office of Management and Budget, hasn't gotten much attention since its debut. And it has its detractors. Yet ExpectMore.gov deserves credit for opening a new chapter on governance in the Internet Age.

The site publishes the performance ratings and operating plans for some 800 federally financed programs - including many that scored failing marks - for the entire world to see. This kind of public self-assessment is practically unheard-of in the private. Competition would make disclosing such information akin to giving away military secrets. Even in government circles, the site’s sweeping portrait of how effectively taxpayers’ dollars are being put to work—and in some cases, being wasted—is striking.

ExpectMore.gov clearly has an agenda. Public disclosure of the administration’s Program Assessment Ratings Tool scores gives OMB new leverage in holding agency officials accountable for the programs they manage. It also shines a public spotlight on some of the misguided and ineffective programs born over the years from the froth of congressional politics.

While the PART system isn’t perfect, the questions it asks program leaders to address are nevertheless fair and reasonable: Is a program’s purpose clear? Is it designed to achieve its objectives? Are valid plans in place? Is the program being managed responsibly and within budget? And are the results headed in the right direction?

That the answers are now available for all to see offers a new and potent tool to help manage an often-unruly collection of competing federal programs. It also adds a new dimension to the principle of checks and balances between the executive branch and Congress in the Internet age.

It’s hard not to imagine that the nation’s Founding Fathers would be pleased, if not intrigued, by ExpectMore.gov as an instrument that supports the precept of government by the people, for the people. "

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