Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Government Transparency and Congressional Subpoenas

By Dennis D. McDonald

Click or tap the above image to download a .pdf version of this article.While there’s little question in my mind that some of Congress’ current efforts to “get to the bottom” of the problems experienced by the Affordable Care Act IT program are at least partially politically motivated, we need to think carefully about whether not it makes sense to support or oppose the use of subpoenas to force testimony by key Administration staff.

On one hand, forcing key Administration staff to prepare and present testimony might harm short-term ACA repair efforts by taking staff time and attention away from managing the problem-solving process. There are only 26 hours in a day and I’m assuming administration staff and contractors are working full tilt. A high profile congressional investigation might aid “transparency” but probably won’t help solve problems and might, in fact, make them worse.

On the other hand, I believe that a lack of public engagement by government staff in the past with the public is one of the systemic reasons for the lack of understanding by the public of what government does. A refusal to testify or respond to a subpoena, no matter how politically motivated the demand for testimony is, will be construed by some as “one more attempt” to shield “what’s actually going on” from public scrutiny. That would be bad.

Even if subpoenas of Administration staff to testify are politically motivated and an attempt to hobble implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has no choice but to respond. Coming as I do from a background in IT project management, though, I admit my sympathies right now are with the staff and contractors who are working around the clock to fix ACA system problems. I know what it’s like to be in the middle of high-tension projects. Pointing political and legal fingers right now doesn’t really help if the opposing parties just continue to jab at each other.

There is obviously a need for transparency about this problem. It’s too serious not to discuss openly. We need to do so in a mature and fact based way.

A way must be found to openly discuss and report progress — and problems — in an honest and candid fashion. Otherwise we just end up with something like Pacific Rim where giant robots and monsters fight it out while the city around them is destroyed.

What form could such transparency take? I don’t really know since I’m not there. Would it help to make public in some form the lists of change requests, bug tracking reports, and testing results the staff are currently using to help guide their efforts? These plus some type of access to frequent conferencing, war room meetings, and stand-ups might help if staff are shielded from distractions or from the constant feeling of someone behind you looking over your shoulder. Also, making such volatile and rapidly changing project related data public is a risky proposition given the possibility of misinterpretation. It might also force addition of  a layer of communication staff that the project can’t really afford if we want them to focus — as I do — on fixing things.

I don’t think there’s any alternative to supplying staff to provide Congress with information, no matter how one-sided the questioning becomes. Plus, carefully constructed press releases designed to shield and spin won’t do the job. Somehow the Administration needs to figure out a way to provide the requested information and staff to the public in a way that actually helps to solve the problems. It also has to do this in a cost effective manner that takes into account the simple fact that serious transparency efforts cost money to create and maintain.

The more we know what’s going on the better, and the less chance there is for problems to stay in hiding. This situation is a real test of the Administration’s commitment to transparency. How it handles this crisis will impact government openness for years to come. 

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Copyright © 2013 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is an independent consultant based in the Washington DC area. He has worked throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. In addition to consulting company ownership and management his experience includes database publishing and data transformation, integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. His web site is located at and his email addres is

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