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Contract Transparency Poised to Open Up

We are now nine months into the Obama administration. During that time, some answers have emerged to the many issues that have popped up, but nearly as many questions remain. One lingering question involves defining transparency.
By Christopher J. Dorobek

The new Recovery and Transparency Board can make it real—and matter.

We are now nine months into the Obama administration. During that time, some answers have emerged to the many issues that have popped up, but nearly as many questions remain. One lingering question involves defining transparency.

The administration in recent months has gone through a process of fleshing out the openness and transparency initiative—a brainstorming process, a discussion process and a drafting process. The results could emerge any day, and they may be the subject of more discussion.

One area where the government is learning by doing is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—specifically, the transparency of this $787 billion package. The recovery act was one of the Obama administration's first big initiatives. It entailed government spending to stimulate the economy and to reinvest in areas such as more environmentally friendly industries.

The Obama administration promised, and the law creates, a hefty oversight process. The distribution of that money is being handled by Vice President Joe Biden through a team being led by G. Edward DeSeve, a special adviser to the vice president. But the law also creates the Recovery and Transparency Board—also known by the unfortunate acronym of the RAT board. The board is being led by Earl Devaney, a former Secret Service agent who was the inspector general at the Interior Department when President Obama asked him to lead the board.

The recovery board is responsible for oversight and transparency of the stimulus spending. An essential part of the foundation of that oversight and transparency is the recovery.gov Web site. The theory of Web 2.0 is that information is power, and that shared information only becomes more powerful. Therefore, the idea is to almost “crowdsource” the oversight process by making spending data available online. Then, people could see for themselves where money is being spent.

It is important to note that this type of oversight never has been done before. Agencies face a number of challenges for implementing the stimulus spending. One is getting the money out the door. Some government organizations, such as the Energy Department, have to manage stimulus allocations that are bigger than their annual appropriation. Imagine doubling the amount of work but keeping the same amount of people—and doing it all in a transparent way. Scores of challenges are here.

And this is where things become interesting. Earlier this summer, the recovery board through the General Services Administration (GSA) awarded a $9.5 million contract to a Maryland-based government contractor to build the next generation of recovery.gov. A significant brouhaha erupted over the award, and many of the arguments were red herrings. A big one was the price tag. Some people argued that $9.5 million—almost $18.5 million if all options are exercised—is too much to merely “build a Web site.” In fact, part of the task facing the recovery board and the contractor is to create a system where data can be collected and posted. Again, it is no small feat in and of itself.

But some issues actually go beyond the recovery.gov Web site, and here the recovery board actually can be on the cutting edge of transparency. There needs to be debate, discussion, examination and solutions.

One is task order transparency. Nearly half of government contracts these days are going through task orders in multiple-award contracts, including governmentwide acquisition contracts. And virtually no transparency exists in those multiple-award contracts. The vendors on those contracts are public, but the task order awards under those contracts are not available. Somewhat surprisingly, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had an entire section of its Web site dedicated to contracts—located right on the DHS home page under the heading “Open for Business.” But in general there is no listing of task orders available under multiple-award contracts, including governmentwide acquisition contracts such as one contract that was used for the recovery.gov award. The most obvious and easy issue is agency statements of work, and even they are not made public now. Making that information public would go a long way toward describing what an agency is looking for, and it might enable partnerships that no one currently can imagine.

Another possibility is to make contracts available. This is a much more thorny issue because most contracts have provisions that are sensitive. They contain proprietary information that many vendors do not want publicized. Nonetheless, significant portions of contracts can be made public but are not—largely because they never were.

Making bidders public would be more controversial, but it seems that this information could be illustrative and powerful. The recovery.gov bid, which was offered on a GSA governmentwide acquisition contract, received only three bids. That data ends up being important as agencies and vendors assess how they do business. The Recovery and Transparency Board is in a position to be a leader for the rest of government by carrying out this contract in a different way.

Regardless, the entire process is worth watching. It offers many learning opportunities that can lead to greater transparency.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Federal News Radio 1500 AM.