Keeping track: This month the White House launched its new IT Dashboard, which provides information about the status of IT-related contracts in federal agencies. The tool includes analysis of whether contracts are on schedule or incurring cost overruns.
“The dashboard may be just the tip of an iceberg that will herald a new-age transparency regarding federal spending,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a website that covers politics and technology. “Once people get used to this type of information being so readily accessible, they will demand to see [it] for all other federal spending too, and then the genie will be completely out of the bottle.”
But the IT Dashboard also shows the limitations of the government’s own open-government efforts, says Johnson. It helps users find the primary recipients of funding, but not subcontractors. Furthermore, it’s not easy to discern the origins of contracts or their geographic distribution, and it’s almost impossible to see how they are connected to elected officials. “The IT Dashboard is a tool for government to audit itself, but it isn’t a particularly good tool for citizens to look at,” Johnson says.
Johnson says the transparency corps could be mobilized to fill that gap. He notes that the dashboard is based on government forms that track the progress of government contracts and the milestones reached. These raw forms, which are available through the site, could be a gold mine for further work, he says.
For example, it’s possible to extract the names of all contractors and subcontractors from these forms and plot their locations geographically, to see if they happen to reside in a particular congressional district. It’s also possible to trace contractors’ contributions to lawmakers, by identifying the company board members from Securities and Exchange Commission filings, and then cross-referencing their names to Federal Elections Commission records of campaign donors. Thanks to the dashboard’s own analyses, it may also be possible to highlight which low-performing companies are most closely tied to which politicians.
“The IT Dashboard is just one way of looking at the data,” says Raseij, “and shows the government is trying to partner with the public in a transparent way. It’s up to groups like the Sunlight Foundation and others to take the government’s lead and make even more sense out of the available information and data for the public good.”
Meanwhile, if you happen to hold public office, be careful what you ask for, and watch what you tweet.