This week's Recovery.gov "Chairman's Corner" reminds me of my first soccer game. At 5 years old, I was so excited to get the ball passed to me. I was so focused on keeping my eye on that ball just like my Dad told me. And as I dribbled it down the field I was thrilled to hear my parents scream in support. I was amazed at how good I was at this game-- nobody from the other team was blocking me and own teammates seemed to be flapping their arms encouraging me to take the shot! As I reached the end of the field, I grinned and gave that ball the kick of a lifetime, only to watch it fly by my own goalie's quizzical face.
Devaney's post is a defensive one, speaking to criticism from who he calls "journalists and Internet grouches," and an attempt to "bury the urban legends about the Board and the recovery program." Most of the critiques came out about six months ago, in October, when the data was released.
He goes on to explain why these "journalists and internet grouches" are wrong. With every word typed in this post, you can watch opportunity ooze from between his fingers. Exasperated, he says of the alleged $6.4 billion dollars going to congressional districts that don't exist:
"These were simple clerical errors, and we fixed the problem with edit checks preventing recipients from entering the wrong districts in future data reports. But to read some coverage, one might conclude that a scandal worthy of Sherlock Holmes had befallen the Recovery program. Not really—just critics hyperventilating."
Chairman Devaney: I don't fault you for bad data. Data entered in by humans will always be bad. We're fallible people, never perfect. Those clerical errors will continue, and they will always exist. But I do fault you for not using this opportunity to actually fulfill your organization's mission which, according to the blurb right under your logo on your website is: "Recovery.gov is the U.S. government’s official website providing easy access to data related to Recovery Act spending and allows for the reporting of potential fraud, waste, and abuse."
What you could have done here, nearly 6 months ago when this story broke, is said:
"Thank you for reporting these errors in our newly released datasets. This is why we created Recovery.gov in the first place: so that we could harness the power of thousands of 'Citizen IGs' to reduce the amount of waste, fraud, and abuse in this program. These citizen contributions are fantastic. Thanks so much."
With that line, you could have turned opponents into allies. You could have neutralized criticism, and turned opponents into allies. You could have created a spirit of civil openness and participation like no other in an incredibly charged political environment. You could have been a textbook model for every federal agency as they are writing their open government plans. Sunlight would have sung your praises into the high heavens as a leader in openness and accountability.
But instead you decided to go on the defensive. You decided to belittle the participants, and to further the controversy. You decided to keep up the data hysteria and draw a wall around yourself. See-- by defending the mistakes, you're becoming responsible for them.
If you're at a federal agency, Recovery.gov is a great transparency case study: how to be open and transparent with technology, and completely awful at communications.