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Agency board to talk transparency, but meeting closed to public

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The board that oversees the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent federal agency that doles out foreign aid, is meeting next week  to discuss open data and transparency.

But the meeting, it turns out, is closed to the public.

As a policy, MCC board meetings are held behind closed doors. But with transparency on the agenda, “it’s hard to see why the entire board meeting would be closed to the public,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for increased government transparency.

He credited the MCC for releasing copies of its meeting minutes. Meanwhile, MCC ranked high in a recent transparency rating of aid organizations worldwide.

Still, while discussions on personnel and pending foreign aid decisions may be appropriate for closed session, Wonderlich said the board should consider dividing between public and nonpublic portions of meetings.

Asked about the closed door policy, the MCC emailed a statement to Federal Times saying the Sunshine Act doesn’t apply to board meetings but the organization still works to be transparent.

“Due to the sensitive and confidential nature of the meetings, they are not open to the public,” the MCC statement reads, adding that the organization also issues press releases and holds public town halls after board meeting to inform the public.

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Medical malpractice records restored to public, with reporting rules

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The federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has reopened public access to information on malpractice settlements and discipline taken against poor  performing doctors.

But under its new data use agreement, publicly available information from the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) cannot be reposted or used in combination with other information to identify a doctor.

HRSA took down its online public file of the NPDB Sept. 1, after a Kansas City Star reporter used the information to track down the identity of a doctor who had a long record of malpractice cases against him but was never disciplined by the state.

Now, if HRSA learns that data has been used to identify a doctor, it will ask that the data be returned, HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield said in a statement.

The information can be used in statistical analysis and reporting, Wakefield said, such as “an article that talks about trends in malpractice or disciplinary actions that includes unidentified data to support the conclusions.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley,  ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, pushed HRSA to restore public access since the database was taken down. He previously asked Wakefield to explain her agency’s response to the Kansas City Star reporter, submit all communication between HRSA officials and the doctor that was identified in the story, and outline what steps they are taking to restore public access to the data bank.

HRSA’s new restrictions on the use of public information within the NPDB is “overreaching” and “restricts the use of the information much more than the law specifies,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a news release.

“This agency needs to remember that half of all health care dollars in the United States comes from taxpayers, so the interpretation of the law ought to be for public benefit,” he said. “One complaint shouldn’t dictate public access to federally collected data for 300 million people.” 

It’s also unclear how HRSA would monitor and take back misused data, Grassley said.  He said he is seeking legal opinions on HRSA’s interpretation of the law.

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Medical malpractice records removed from public view

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The ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee is pushing the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to reopen public access to information on malpractice settlements and discipline taken against poor  performing doctors.

HRSA took down its online public file of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPBD) Sept. 1, after a Kansas City Starreporter used the publicly available information to track down the identity of a doctor who had a long record of malpractice cases against him but was never disciplined by the state.

“Shutting down public access to the data bank undermines the critical mission of identifying inefficiencies within our health care system – particularly at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a letter Friday to HRSA’s administrator Mary Wakefield.  “More transparency serves the public interest. Generally speaking, except in cases of national security, the public’s business ought to be public.”

Information from the data bank is intended to be public as long as it does not identify particular health care entities or practitioners, Grassley said in the letter. And yet HRSA threatened the reporter, Alan Bavley, with civil monetary penalties for “republication of information obtained from the NPDB.”

Grassley asked Wakefield to explain her agency’s response to Bavley, submit all communication between HRSA officials and the doctor that was identified in Bavley’s story, and outline what steps they are taking to restore public access to the data bank.

The data bank site says HRSA plans to restore public access as quickly as possible. HRSA has previously said the process of further removing identifiable information from the database could take up to six months, Grassley said.

In the meantime, reporters and researchers can submit requests for data, which are subject to review.

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This means war

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Buildup over a draft executive order that would require contractors to disclose their political contributions has led one voice for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to mimic the President’s charge in Libya.

“We will fight it through all available means,” the Chamber of Commerce’s top lobbyist R. Bruce Josten told the New York Times Tuesday. In a reference to the White House’s battle to depose Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, he said, “To quote what they say every day on Libya, all options are on the table.”

The proposal, leaked last week by a former Federal Election Commission official, would require companies bidding for government work to disclose in their proposals all political contributions made by the company, its Political Action Committee and its senior executives over the prior two years.

Companies would also have to include contributions made to third-party organizations that could use those donations for political advertising.

The order says it seeks to “increase transparency and accountability” by addressing the perception that political campaign spending provides special access to or favoritism in the contracting process.

So what exactly are those options that the Chamber and other critics could use?

Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said there are two pressure points — the courts or Congress.

Several Republican leaders seem ready to draft a bill overturning the order (if it’s ever issued). Twenty five Republican senators signed off on a letter that raised concerns about politicizing the contracting process and silencing political activity among contracting corporations.

And if this battle was waged at the Supreme Court level, it would be interesting to see if judges maintain their support of campaign finance disclosure or if this particular type of disclosure would fall under other areas that they have deemed protected.

Some of the questions being raised have very little to do with the details of disclosure rules but on the President’s intent. Opponents ask if he seriously considers pay-to-play as large a problem in Washington as we’ve seen in states or does he want to know who is financing his political opponents?

If he’s seeking transparency, President Obama would have to show how this disclosure won’t give Democratic supporters extra pull with awards. It probably wouldn’t hurt to also call out some of the serious contracting favoritism that his order would fix.

Just as last year’s Citizens United Supreme Court case, which protected corporate donations to political organizations, drove millions of dollars into the 2010 elections, this order may set off a different kind of firestorm, said Bradley Smith, chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics and a former Federal Election Commission chairman. Obama’s effort could backfire, he said, and instead of silencing his opponents, he may incite them to fight back with their wallets.

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Tweets of the day: Federal News Radio catches OPM snoozing

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I’m just going to let this series of tweets from Federal News Radio’s Amy Morris speak for themselves:

Response to Interview request from @fednewsradio and @wtop from OPM PR person, “I’m in bed, I can’t help you. I really need to sleep.” (About 7 hours ago)

Apologies to feds who follow us…#FedDrive wants to give u info re: OPM’s decisions, but apparently their PR person would rather sleep. (About 6 hours ago)

@cdorobek I’m so furious I could spit. WTOP and WFED have talked about it on the air. A totally unacceptable response. (About 6 hours ago, responding to Chris Dorobek of the Dorobek Insider show)

Update on OPM interview: Director John Berry has responded to WFED personally…we hope to get an interview today. (About 5 hours ago)

@DCRadioDan We got OPM Director Berry. He was gracious enough to join us in the 8a hour. We’re about to replay the interview again. (About 4 hours ago)

Morris’ interview with Berry on the snowstorm and how he decided to close the government early yesterday can be heard here. In it, Berry refuted criticism that the government’s early dismissal contributed to the epic gridlock that paralyzed the DC area last night. He said feds who didn’t heed the advice to go home early and beat the snow, along with the sheer speed at which the storm developed, “combined to make a bad situation even worse.”

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OPM refuses to say how long it takes to hire someone

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Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry earlier this week had this to say about the progress agencies are making on speeding up the hiring process:

The broader deadline is the one that everybody’s referred to, the 80 days. That’s the marker the president’s put out there [on how long an agency should take to hire somebody]. I admit, we’re not there yet on everywhere but we have hit some bright spots. We’re getting close to it at OPM.

That’s a little vague. “Close” could mean 81 days. Could mean 100 days. Could mean 120 days. I wanted to follow up and ask him exactly how long OPM takes to hire somebody, but he was hustled out of the event before I got my chance.

So I immediately followed up with OPM’s press office. Spokesman Marcus Williams wrote back to me that evening: “Federal agencies are individually submitting their time to hire updates and this information should be available to the public in January 2011.”

I wasn’t looking for governmentwide stats, since Berry previously explained OPM was still compiling those figures. So I wrote back and said that I just wanted OPM’s figures. After all, it’s the agency leading the charge on hiring reform. They should know, right? Berry seemed to know enough to make the claim that OPM is nearing the 80-day mark.

But Spokesman Edmund Byrnes just sent me this response:

OPM will be reporting its time to hire numbers with the other Federal agencies in January 2011.

So OPM just doesn’t want to say how long it takes to hire somebody. Yet another example of the agency’s transparency problems.

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Agencies seeking feedback on making operations more transparent

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Earlier I wrote about how the Environmental Protection Agency was asking for the public’s help in making the agency more open and transparent. It turns out that EPA isn’t alone.

Twenty-five agencies have launched special websites through which people can submit and vote on ideas for how those agencies can expand and improve online access to information, better solicit feedback from the public and better engage with groups both inside and outside goverment.

Twenty-three of the agencies are using a web platform developed by the General Services Administration to engage the public. By offering a single solution, GSA made it easier for those agencies to solicit feedback from the public, said David McClure, associate administrator for GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications, in a news release.

Public comments at all agencies will be accepted until March 19. Agencies then will use the suggestions to help them write their first-ever Open Government Plans. All agencies have until April 7 to publish these plans, which are roadmaps for how agencies will comply with the open government principles President Obama laid out in a December memorandum.

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EPA’s open government efforts begin with public

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The Environmental Protection Agency is asking for the public to help it comply with an Obama administration directive to make government operations more open and transparent.

EPA has created a special website through which people can submit and vote on ideas for how the agency can solicit more feedback from the public, improve the quality and availability of information posted online and work better with groups inside and outside government. Ideas will be accepted until March 19.

EPA will use the suggestions to help write its first-ever Open Government Plan, said Linda Travers, EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator, in an Feb. 10 e-mail to members of EPA’s list serve. All agencies have until April 7 to publish these plans, which are roadmaps for how agencies will comply with the open government principles President Obama laid out in a December memorandum.

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RAT board not certifying data it’s not supposed to certify

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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) sent a letter on Nov. 13 (pdf) to Earl Devaney, the chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, raising some questions about the stimulus data posted on Recovery.gov. Issa was specifically concerned about the “jobs created/saved” data: The site claims 640,329 jobs have been created or saved, but there’s widespread agreement that figure is wrong.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Why is the Fed so unpopular?

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A new Gallup poll finds the Federal Reserve is the least popular among nine “key” federal agencies.

You can read the poll as an example of why government transparency is important — because the Fed’s low ranking is due, in part, to its opacity. There’s a serious debate in economics circles right now about the Fed’s performance during the economic crisis, and whether Ben Bernanke should be reappointed.

But I doubt most of Gallup’s respondents are privy to that debate; many Americans simply don’t understand what the Fed does. It’s just an opaque entity that handles the economy — and with the economy in the middle of a biting recession, the Fed’s popularity is plummeting.

Bernanke is starting to recognize this, which is why he held the Fed’s first-ever town hall meeting last weekend. That isn’t transparency, of course, so much as public relations; many of the Fed’s critics want to see major changes in the way the central bank discloses information (rightly so, in this reporter’s opinion). But this kind of outreach to the public might help the Fed repair its tattered image.

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