Editorial: Garbage in, garbage out

Those who believe in an open government — and we include ourselves in that group — may have been buoyed in recent weeks by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) sponsored.

The goal of the bill is simple: shine the light on government contracts and contracting.

The legislation is an important step toward open government, and the way it made its way through Congress gives us hope. But the implementation of the bill leaves us skeptical.

The legislation’s goal is something that seemingly nobody could oppose. But the future of the bill was thrown into limbo by a few lawmakers who put a secret hold on it.

In a sure sign that times have changed, people in the blogosphere took to their keyboards and tracked the lawmakers who were delaying the legislation. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) acknowledged putting a hold on the bill, while Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was widely suspected as well. Once senators lifted the holds, the bill quickly moved through the legislature.

The goal of making information about government contracts and contracting transparent is a good one. We always favor more openness regarding how the government operates. But there are questions about how the government would actually create a searchable online database.

The Federal Procurement Data System is the closest thing available to a central database into which agencies feed their procurement data. Yet, by most accounts, FPDS data is not easily deciphered and is not always complete. The General Services Administration created the original FPDS but gave daily operational responsibility to a contractor in 2003 when FPDS-Next Generation debuted.

One of the problems with the system is that agencies have no clear business reason to spend the time, energy and effort to provide good contract data. As a component of GSA’s Integrated Acquisition Environment, FPDS is part of the e-government initiative, but that isn’t always convincing.

One imagines that greater visibility of data will motivate agencies, but there are also some good business and management reasons to want access to accurate and clean contract data. For example, is an agency overly reliant on a handful of vendors? Do agencies have a good mix of small, medium and large businesses?

For agencies in the business of selling to other agencies, such data is invaluable because it can provide insights about the market that will help them serve their customers.

We believe in open government, but it will take some leadership if this online contract database is going to be useful for agencies looking to manage their contracts effectively and for taxpayers looking to determine how the government spends their money. Otherwise, it will merely be shoveling garbage in to get the predictable garbage out.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.

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