Transparency has been a buzzword of the Obama administration from day one. “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency,” wrote Obama in a memo released the day after he was sworn in. Still unclear is what transparency actually means, and how the government contracting community should position itself to help with implementation. For ideas, ExecutiveBiz recently turned to Donna Ryan, senior vice president at CGI. The call for transparency we are now seeing is unprecedented, says Ryan. “I have never, in my time, seen government mandates that require agencies to have to turn on a dime,” says Ryan, who’s been with CGI over 20 years. Here Ryan offers her take on how Obama’s call for transparency might play out and how you can be part of this mission-critical program.
Transparency — we’re hearing that word a lot from the Obama administration. It’s still unclear, however, what that word means and how it will play out. Any ideas?
Donna Ryan: It’s true, there hasn’t been a lot of clarity on what exactly this means. That said, we have a general sense. Agencies spend a lot of time creating financial statements every year, huge books of numbers and programs. However readership is limited; most of the public is not going to pick up an agency’s financial statement and try to read it. Yes, the numbers are there and there’s transparency, however it’s not meaningful. So, a key part of transparency is, how to provide transparent information in an “easy to read and understand” format with terminology that’s meaningful to the general public.
What role can the commercial sector play in helping define transparency?
Donna Ryan: I think it’s a partnership. I don’t think that one side [government] or the other [industry] can get to the end game all by themselves. There is a lot we can do in partnership. For example, we [industry] can help agencies leverage their existing ERP systems to provide the transparency and accountability that the Recovery Act requires.
In what federal arenas is the call for transparency being heard the loudest?
Donna Ryan: The implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has really changed the dynamics; you are now seeing chief acquisition officers, program executives, grant-making officials, financial management managers — all of whom are now trying to work out what it [transparency] is and provide information to OMB, Congress, and the general public that provides the accountability demanded in an easy to understand format.
And how are they responding?
Donna Ryan: There are three aspects that feed into their response. One is pace; due to the economic situation significant urgency is at play here. I have never, in my time, seen government mandates that require agencies to have to turn on a dime. The OMB guidance on the Recovery and Reinvestment Act is a prime example. Second is the workload generated from distributing the funds coming out of the new stimulus bill. As you know, a high level of attrition and retirements have occurred in the federal government over the last two to five years. Now those who remain have this additional workload without the resources. It’s important to make sure the pressures don’t become so extreme that more senior people leave. The third is oversight … audit requirements and now a new Recovery and Accountability Transparency Board.
What solution offerings are you seeing to meet this unprecedented call for transparency?
Donna Ryan: I’ve been with CGI over 20 years now, and during that time I’ve worked primarily in the financial management and procurement arena. Back in the early ’90s the advent of the CFO Act moved a lot of agencies forward in modernization of their financial and procurement systems. That was overlaid with the Financial Systems Integration Office, which set the standards that software had to meet in order for the government to buy it. We at CGI have a federal financial management package — an ERP solution called Momentum — that was built for the government and implemented in over 100 different agencies, commissions, and boards. Agencies that have modernized are now positioned to capitalize on their investments to provide the required transparency.
What’s the next step for your business unit in ramping things up?
Donna Ryan: We are addressing three areas: financial management, procurement, and granting at the state level. For example, we are developing offerings and ideas to aggregate information from recipients to report back on the distribution of grant dollars though ARRA. This information will need to be reported back to the appropriate party seamlessly and easily.
How are those efforts unfolding?
Donna Ryan: Here’s a little case study. The EPA has to get environmental regulatory information back from state and local entities. And because we have worked with them for 20 years we understand the challenges they face in collecting environmental data. We developed an open source technology that aggregates this environmental data back into the EPA to meet this challenge. This technology could be leveraged to collect Recovery Act information. We’ve spoken to various agencies as well as OMB about this concept because as an open source solution it’s something they can deploy immediately.
Any other opportunities?
Donna Ryan: Many agencies have grants management systems in place. While I’ve said that agencies have modernized their financial management and procurement systems, many of the granting systems are custom built, legacy systems that have been in these agencies for some time. The concern here is that not only are the agencies struggling to handle the additional workload, but in some cases their systems may not be capable of handling the volume. At CGI we have leveraged our knowledge and expertise across federal, state, and local markets to stand up a SAAS Grants Management Service for both the grantor and the grantee.
Where do you think the call for transparency will ultimately take us?
Donna Ryan: As I said earlier, agencies have been providing financial transparency all along in their financial statements, but the issue has been how easy it is to understand. I think the transparency and accountability required by the ARRA is going to help agencies provide the data in a more easily understood format, to the benefit of all involved.
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