There are some questions about how the government would create a searchable online database of contract information.
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.