Groups push for online access to details of federal contracts

Consumer advocates and policy organizations are tossing their support behind an initiative that would require certain government contracts to be made publicly available online.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is spearheading an initiative that would compel federal agencies to routinely post contracts on the Internet. Proponents say the move would bolster transparency and accountability for government agencies and their contractors while also increasing the public's ability to easily access government documents.

Ralph Nader of Public Citizen and James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology, have been leading proponents of the effort since 1999. On Friday, several organizations--including the Heritage Foundation, Federation of American Scientists and Consumer Federation of America--reiterated their support for the idea in a letter to OMB Director Mitch Daniels.

Currently, statistics on federal contracts are available through the General Services Administration's Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS). But as part of President Bush's Management Agenda and e-government initiatives, OMB has begun to redesign that system.

"We have in process an initiative to re-engineer the existing FPDS, which should result in a wealth of additional data being made available to the public," Daniels wrote in a November letter to Love and Nader. He added that specific contract-award information would be available in FPDS. But the two consumer advocates wanted OMB to work toward a policy that would compel agencies to post all federal contracts online.

"We generally agree that it was something we wanted to do," said Angela Styles, OMB's administrator for procurement policy, "but we had trouble thinking through how to do it." Posting agreements online creates "considerable concerns" among contractors about the availability of proprietary information, she said.

Some agencies already post contracts online, but incremental steps are being taken to require firms to provide redacted versions of sensitive contracts, eventually leading to the online availability of all federal contracts.

"What we've said is that they should put on the non-redacted parts of the contracts," Love said. "If [the government] has a contract with someone to manage a student-loan program, it's not a national security matter. There is a public interest in the public being able to see what's in those contracts."

Citizens already can access such documents via the Freedom of Information Act, but Love said it is so slow that it is a "major deterrent."

The Procurement Executive Council has allocated funds to build an online system similar to that of the Defense Department, which will host some contracts, Styles said. Eventually, the system will allow all contracts to be posted, but for now, Styles emphasized that the process must be incremental.

Defense contracting is a major concern, said Steve Aftergood, a project director with the Federation of American Scientists." It affects our entire military force structure," he said, "and it's a politically loaded subject. ... "[T]he more information that is available in the public domain, the better."

Love said an April meeting with White House officials signaled a "high level of interest" in the initiatives and served as an indication that things are moving forward.

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