By Robert Brodsky
August 20, 2009
It's unclear if President Obama's campaign proposal to post copies of all government contracts online has the support of Congress or is even logistically viable, sources told Government Executive on Wednesday.
Since December 2007, the public has been able to obtain details about government awards through USASpending.gov, a database of federal contracts and grants. But under Obama's doctrine of increased transparency, open government advocates have begun to crave more information on the often arcane federal procurement process -- namely access to actual contracts.
The idea has gained some traction in recent months. The Treasury Department in January began posting copies of hundreds of contracts to companies receiving assistance through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, as well as awards to financial institutions the government hired to assist with the program.
Earlier this month, under pressure from public watchdog groups, the General Services Administration released a heavily redacted copy of a contract for the redesign of Recovery.gov.
Some observers view the public posting of the TARP and Recovery contracts as isolated examples of contracts generating a lot of interest and that likely would have been released anyway through a Freedom of Information Act request. But the administration has hinted that it might be the start of a larger trend.
Kenneth Baer, communications director for the Office of Management and Budget, told Government Executive on Wednesday that the president continues to support the principles of the 2008 Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act (S. 3077), a bill Obama introduced in the Senate last year that would have added vastly more information to USASpending.gov.
In June 2008, then-Sen. Obama and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced a follow-up to their 2006 Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act, which created USASpending.gov.
"The president is committed to improving transparency throughout the federal government," Baer said. "On his first day in office, the president issued a memorandum to the heads of federal agencies emphasizing that openness is critical to promoting efficiency and effectiveness in government. Full implementation of the Transparency Act is a cornerstone of these efforts, and the administration is committed to achieving its goals."
The 2008 legislation -- ballyhooed at the time because it was co-sponsored by Obama's Republican rival for the presidency, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- required federal agencies to post searchable copies of all contracts they awarded, details about the bidding process, assessments of work already performed, and information on civil, criminal or administrative proceedings against award recipients.
Despite the high-level support -- Democratic Sens. Thomas Carper of Delaware and Claire McCaskill of Missouri also signed on as co-sponsors -- the bill never moved out of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. An identical bill in the House also floundered.
A Senate Democratic source familiar with the legislation said in an e-mail that the bill failed to move because "OMB and others questioned whether it was possible to do everything that the bill tried to do, and Sens. Obama and Coburn didn't [or] couldn't address the concerns that were raised in time."
While many of the original sponsors continue to support the legislation's intentions, "there is no plan to reintroduce the bill," the source said.
Among the concerns the Bush administration raised were the practical logistics of going through every contract line by line searching for proprietary and private information, such as pricing and salaries, that must be redacted.
To put the task in perspective, it took GSA more than two weeks to release the heavily redacted copy of the Recovery.gov contract. The investigative news organization, Pro Publica, has filed an appeal with the agency, arguing the redactions were excessive and requesting that additional information be released.
With more than 30 million transactions issued by the government annually -- including task orders and contracts -- the redaction process alone would be overwhelming, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, a contractor trade association.
"Publishing full texts of contracts is problematic," he said. "The redaction process can be tedious and there are a lot of gray areas."
The unredacted information would not have significant value to the public and also could lack the necessary context, Chvotkin argued.
But, government watchdogs said being able to examine PDFs of actual contracts could add considerable contextual value to the work contractors performed.
Jake Wiens, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, said contract descriptions on USASpending.gov often are insufficient to obtain a full understanding of the project and its overall mission. The actual contracts, he said, detail the full scope of work that a company is responsible for performing.
While Wiens acknowledged the process would be time-consuming, he maintained that contracts could be written in such a way that all proprietary information would be relegated to one section, and therefore easier to redact.
"Technological advances would allow us to overcome these hurdles," he said. "I don't think it's impossible."
On Thursday, POGO released a review of the procurement Web sites from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found that only one, New Hampshire, has been posting original, scanned Recovery Act contracts.
The watchdog group recommended the federal government follow New Hampshire's lead and require recipients of stimulus funds to submit a scanned copy of their contracts that can be viewed by the public on Recovery.gov.
By Robert Brodsky
August 20, 2009