Open Government Data Can Help Improve Performance and Provide Accountability
By: Greg Sanders
The recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on detention and interrogation has brought renewed focus to the advisability of releasing sensitive government information to the public. To be sure, publishing data on what the government has done and whether or not it worked can be frightening, particularly for those under the microscope. Beyond protecting personal identifying information and critical technical details, even the best-run agencies hold data that domestic opponents or foreign enemies might use against them. However, despite these costs, open societies benefit enormously by learning from mistakes, refining performance, and holding government officials accountable.
The United States does comparatively well at transparency; cross-national research leaves me grateful for all that it publishes. The Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group (DIIG) at CSIS relies on government data to help us understand government performance and industry trends. Over the past year, there have been several information transparency advances we have found particularly beneficial: the ongoing series on the performance of the Defense Acquisition System and ForeignAssistance.gov’s release of State Department and transaction data. Similarly, many of our past reports were only possible thanks to decades of work expanding public access to data. Turning away from the principle of open government data would undercut this process and impede efforts to find solutions to present and future problems. DIIG is now working on a project breaking new ground in using the Federal Procurement Data System to track contracting outcomes. One new method we are employing is to study contract terminations, because a termination means at the very least the vendor has underperformed or the government failed to anticipate a dramatic shift in its needs.
Our initial research has found that terminations spiked in fiscal year 2011, before the super committee failed and sequestration became law, but
coincident with the drawdown in Iraq and the implementation of Secretary Robert Gates’s program cancellations. However, the correlation between
project cancellation and contract terminations is weaker than expected. The Littoral Combat Ship, a program that was troubled but pulled through, had a higher rate of termination than several cancelled projects, including the Future Combat System. Perhaps most surprisingly, size does not protect contracts from termination. Instead, our longest and largest categories of contracts were terminated about 10 percent of the time, versus less than 3 percent for contracts overall.
If you are interested in hearing more about our ongoing research in this area, please feel free to send me an e-mail. Improving government performance is collaborative, and the practitioners and experts that read our reports can be one of our most valuable resources.