Editorial: Data shepherd

We have been withholding comments on the debate about the government's procurement data partially because the story was not yet clear. Although that remains true to some extent, the issues involved — particularly the Freedom of Information Act questions — are too important to go without discussion.

The story is relatively simple: General Services Administration officials recently outsourced the Federal Procurement Data System in hopes of improving it. Under the new system, the raw contracting data goes directly to the vendor rather than GSA. This data is important for journalists, academics, researchers, lawmakers and leaders of oversight groups who use it to track the billions of dollars the government spends annually.

There have been questions in recent weeks about whether that procurement data will continue to be widely available. Furthermore, there are questions about whether the data, having been outsourced to a private vendor, falls under the purview of the Freedom of Information Act.

We believe that it does and should continue to be readily accessible. And if federal procurement data no longer falls under FOIA, it is a bad move and wrong.

The act exists because public information should, to the greatest extent possible, be public. Government agencies, like other organizations, operate better with some degree of oversight. Public information facilitates oversight.

David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator of GSA's Office of Acquisition Policy, has tried to reassure everybody that the data will continue to be available. In fact, he argues, the new system will make data better and faster, and information will be more accessible than it had been.

Based on his career, we have faith in Drabkin.

This question, however, cannot rest with one person. GSA officials need to ensure that public data never ceases to be public.

This case could be a watershed. After all, we expect the outsourcing trend to continue. But there must be explicit assurances that public information remains publicly accessible.

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