The peek-a-boo information initiative

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By The Staff

One week the White House announces an Open Government Initiative. The next week the National Nuclear Security Administration slams the lid down on a vital piece of information that has been shared with the public in the past.

That probably isn’t the way it was meant to play out, but that’s the way it felt.

Here’s what happened:

Like most other newspapers and citizens everywhere we have been led to expect a new era of openness in the federal government.

On Jan. 20 Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and on the next day he issued his first executive memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government,” which said, among other things, “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

The memo directed various officials to get busy for 120 days on a policy to get all the government agencies to comply with an Open Government Directive.

There was also a little bit of a disclaimer at the very end that some of us might have missed on the first reading.

“This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person,” it says.

Apparently, any successor to Lincoln from here on out will have to include a “safe harbor” clause in his or her pronouncements.

In any event, the job has taken more than 120 days, but on Dec. 8, the White House issued the open government directive from Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Among other things, the document called for federal agencies to make available a minimum of three “high-value” data sets. The example given was the release by the Federal Aviation Administration of on-time performance information by commercial airlines.

Included were instructions and deadlines, suggestions and requirements for creating and sustaining a culture of open government. They sound good.

Apparently NNSA didn’t get the memo. Or if they got it, it was overruled in advance by a relatively minor official, the agency’s procurement director David Boyd who had decided on Oct. 19, that a set of critical documents that determine how millions of federal dollars are distributed would no longer be made available.

Rather, he decreed, the hundreds of pages of information about the performance of national laboratory contractors, would henceforth be summarized with four data points.

To account for last year’s payment of $72.1 million to Los Alamos National Security LLC, the partnership that manages Los Alamos National Laboratory, the agency will divulge the contractor’s name, the amount of fee available, the amount of fee earned and the percentage of fee earned.

This is communicating a high-value data set in minimal data points.

Actually the fourth point is superfluous, since it could be calculated from all that other information already provided.

To add to the obstruction, the minor official has decided that the reports are proprietary and therefore, based on an obscure federal regulation, should not be made available for three years.  

Here’s the problem:

The Performance Evaluation Reports, as they are known, are one of the few detailed insights into how the work of the laboratory is going and how well the managing contractor is doing its job and almost equally important, how the federal agency supervising that contractor measures and perceives the quality of that work.

In past performance reports, the nitty-gritty, the reality, the good and the bad have been on display, although couched in an obscure jargon that needs interpretation. Still, that is very important information for the public to have.

Without it, the public is free to stop paying attention, which bars the public from having adequate information to make elective choices in a democratic society, or the public is free to make up its own story.

Without it, leaked information begins to take on a very high value, right or wrong.

For example, already, the Monitor has received a copy of the unclassified presentation from an all-manager’s meeting Tuesday at which the Performance Evaluation Report was discussed.

Included were suggestive bullets, indicating the site manager rated the overall performance as “Good,” but intended to focus on “the next level of implementation and PF-4 risks.”

The PF-4 risks may be a problem the Nuclear Facilities Safety Board has been concerned about for a number of years that could result in the worst-case meltdown at the Plutonium Facility.

What is that you might ask?

Oh, never mind.

We’ll tell you in three years.