New law calls for an online database taxpayers can use to track government contracts.
The bipartisan sponsors of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act are proud of their achievement. The law instructs the Office of Management and Budget to create a searchable online database of virtually all federal transactions over $25,000. "American taxpayers soon will be equipped with a significant tool that will make it much easier to hold elected officials accountable for the way taxpayer money is spent," Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in a joint statement on Sept. 26, the day the law was enacted.
Allowing the general public to track federal expenditures easily certainly seems to be an unassailable idea. The question it begs is: Why is that not already possible?
No single entity collects all the information that would be housed in the database the new law envisions. The General Services Administration's Federal Procurement Data System is the central repository for government contracting data, but it has little information on grants. Grant information is uploaded quarterly on the Census Bureau's Federal Assistance Award Data System, but it only produces reports and is not searchable. And information on federal purchase orders, which are not considered contracts, in general has not been collected.
"For years, many of us have been arguing for more transparency-heck, any true transparency-for the billions of dollars in purchase orders across the government," says Christopher Yukins, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at The George Washington University Law School. "I'm not at all sure why it's taken so long to have this database."
The Federal Procurement Data System began in 1978 as a series of COBOL programs on an IBM mainframe-primitive by today's standards. Despite upgrades, the system was not searchable by the average citizen before 2004. Queries had to be submitted to the staff at GSA's Federal Procurement Data Center, which oversaw the system. Such searches cost money, in many cases.
A new version of the system-called FPDS-NG, for Next Generation-changed that. It's online, and it allows individuals to perform their own searches. But sometimes it requires users to complete a series of fields such as year, vendor name and agency name, which makes it more complicated than the typical Internet search engine. And the system does not allow for broad, plain-language searches to, in effect, "Google" your tax dollars, in the parlance of Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act supporters.
That's because Google was not ubiquitous in the early part of the decade when government working groups were designing the requirements for what would eventually become FPDS-NG, says David Lucas, director of business development at Global Computer Enterprises of Reston, Va., designer and operator of the system. He also cites a lack of funding for such a search tool. Two years ago, GCE built a prototype of a Google-like search engine for federal spending to demonstrate how the system could evolve, he says, and the firm has been advocating its adoption ever since.
"Innovation comes from funding," Lucas says. "It's not a dearth of ideas; it's not a dearth of vision. Things cost money. And right now, NG is not funded through an appropriation. And as long as that is the case, it is a struggle to give NG the resources it needs."
The prototype's plain-language search makes it easy to see how useful such a tool could be. Some categories of spending, such as pandemic flu-related grants or faith-based initiatives, typically are not denoted in contracting data. But the plain-language search allows a user to sift through all spending to find the words "flu" or "church." The prototype also allows more structured queries-for example, looking for the word "flu" among Health and Human Services Department grants or among recipients with names starting with "A," if someone is looking for information on a vaccine manufacturer but doesn't know how to spell the name.
The nonprofit government watchdog OMB Watch located in Washington recently unveiled a similar Web-based search prototype. Others might follow. Lucas suggests adding GCE's search tool to FPDS-NG, rather than building a new system. And he says the potential revenue from such a deal is not the point.
"When we started this whole thing, this was not about money," he says. "We have over 50,000 users. You get complaints every single day, and you want to fix it."