The Center for Effective Government was founded as OMB Watch in 1983, with the main focus of shining a light on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The organization changed it name in January 2013 to reflect its expanded work and new focus: an effective government that reflects the needs and priorities of the American people, as defined by an informed, engaged citizenry. The organization's mission is two-pronged:
Enhance public understanding and appreciation of what government does and how it operates in all of our communications. If we expect our national government to manage large-scale societal challenges, citizens need to believe that government can contribute to the common good, protect the health, safety, and quality of life of all Americans, and manage resources for the future; and citizens need to know to how they can participate in governance decisions between elections.
Protect core governing processes from undue influence by special interests, through analysis, advocacy, and strategic partnerships inside and outside of Washington. We particularly focus on effective implementation of critical public protections, improvements in public spending transparency, and reforms that enhance government performance and public oversight of governance practices.
In the mid-1990s, the organization formed Citizens for Sensible Safeguards, a coalition that addressed attacks on public protections and the regulatory process. We beat back numerous legislative proposals, many part of the Contract with America, to stop a strong anti-regulatory push by business groups and conservatives – even though we were outspent by more than 20 to 1. In 2011, the coalition was reinvigorated and renamed the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards to lift up the positive role of standards and safeguards in our everyday lives and to push back against anti-regulatory attacks from Congress and industry interests.
In response to the reactionary and unnecessary removal of reams of government information from the Internet following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the organization's staff began the long battle to restore the public's right to know.
We continued to post summaries of Risk Management Plans on RTK NET even when EPA took them down. RMPs are crucial to planning emergency response efforts in the event of a chemical plant leak or explosion and to helping families know about dangers in their communities.
We organized the creation of OpenTheGovernment.org, a broad coalition of advocacy and journalism groups advocating for more openness and less secrecy.
Also in 2001, the organization established a coalition called Americans for a Fair Estate Tax to oppose estate tax repeal and to advocate for smart reform of the tax, consistent with our organization's belief in fairness, social justice, and raising the revenues needed to fund our shared national priorities.
In 2006, the group worked with Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) and a diverse set of organizations to move the groundbreaking Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA) through Congress. FFATA required an online searchable database of federal spending. In October of that year, the organization launched FedSpending.org, a searchable database of federal contracts, grants, and loans dating back to FY 2000. In part, the group built the site to show that federal spending could be tracked and published in this way. FedSpending.org was so successful that the federal government licensed the software in 2007 and used it as the basis for what is now USAspending.gov. The Los Angeles Times called FedSpending.org "the beginning of the transparency revolution."
The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008 and prepared to actively engage in what was to become one of the most historic presidential transitions in United States history. Soon after the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008, we presented to the transition team and Congress two sets of collaboratively developed recommendations to bring government transparency and the regulatory process into the 21st century. The recommendations on transparency, developed by progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, were considered by the White House to be the "blueprint" for their actions on government openness.
In early 2009, the group released a wide-ranging narrative on the negative regulatory legacy left behind by the Bush administration and, working with the Center for American Progress, offered suggestions to the Obama administration on how to tackle some of the more egregious parts of this legacy, known as "midnight regulations." The organization also worked with the Obama administration on several key initiatives, including the development of the Open Government Directive.
Starting in 2009, the organization successfully worked with the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board to ensure that the $787 billion in stimulus funding that was dispersed over 2009-2012 was "the most transparent" in history, and the former chairman of the Board, Earl Devaney, recently noted that the reforms we pushed were responsible for the extremely low rates of fraud associated with stimulus spending. We advocated to have the lessons learned from the Recovery Act incorporated into spending protocols for all government agencies, and this goal has been incorporated in the U.S. government's National Action Plan (part of the Obama administration's international Open Government Partnership initiative).
On July 1, 2011, Katherine McFate took the helm of the organization as its second executive director and was then named its president and CEO. McFate has been a strong proponent of an open, effective government for many years, and she has strong ties in the nonprofit sector and the public interest community. Prior to joining the Center for Effective Government, McFate worked with the Ford Foundation. Before McFate's tenure, Gary Bass had served as executive director for 28 years.
In January 2013, OMB Watch became the Center for Effective Government. The name change reflects how the organization's work has expanded and deepened since its founding 30 years earlier.
Later in January 2013, the Center for Effective Government released an investigation of the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration and its efforts to block scientific assessments of the cancer-causing potential of three chemicals (formaldehyde, styrene, and chromium), based on documents we obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Small Business, Public Health, and Scientific Integrity: Whose Interests Does the Office of Advocacy at the Small Business Administration Serve? demonstrated a close relationship between agency staff and trade associations and industry lobbyists supported by large chemical manufacturers. We recommended changes in the office's policies and called for increased congressional oversight to rein in in appropriate behavior by this office. As a result of our work, congressional staff started asking questions about the office's practices.
Concerned with the impact of automatic spending cuts, the Center for Effective Government created a page on its website, "Sequestration Central," where people can find our analysis such as "Undoing Sequestration," the latest news from a range of sources (including a list of human interest stories documenting the impact of sequestration cuts), and calls to action, including a letter to Congress signed by more than 300 national and state groups.
As a leader in promoting open government, in March 2013, the Center for Effective Government released a report evaluating the first term of the Obama administration's open government reforms, Delivering on Open Government: The Obama Administration's Unfinished Legacy. We found that, despite setting a strong policy platform for open government, implementation of executive orders and openness plans was uneven across agencies; the administration was not able to establish a "culture of openness." On national security issues, the administration's record was quite disappointing. We offered 10 specific recommendations for President Obama's second term.
At the present time, the Center for Effective Government has 20 staff members, though its reach extends well beyond its size due to its continued role in convening coalitions of organizations to work in the public interest. The organization's staff experts, forward-looking board of directors, and senior leadership have strongly positioned the organization to continue the pursuit of a more open and accountable government that promotes fairness and equity.