Why shouldn't federal contracts be posted online?

Back in the boring world of federal regulations there is a proposal currently on the board to have all the contracts for all bids awarded by the federal government put online in a searchable database. Given that we’re talking about taxpayer dollars being spent on projects approved by your legislators, this strikes me as a fairly simple and easy to approve idea, no? Some of our regular readers should brace themselves, because it’s a bill proposed and sponsored by two Democrats, but I’d ask you not to reject it out of hand simply on that basis. In terms of regulatory maneuvers, this is about as benign as they come. But as Government Executive reveals this week, an organization representing many of the largest contractors is pushing back against it.

In a move intended to make it easier for the public to see what exactly federal contractors do for the taxpayer money they receive, two Senate Democrats have introduced legislation that would require agencies to post the text of major contracts online. But contractors and contracting specialists are pushing back.

On March 15, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced the Contractor Accountability and Transparency Act of 2017 (S. 651), which would require agencies to post a “machine-readable, searchable copy of each covered contract” within 30 days of its signing.

The bill would cover awards worth $150,000 or more and would require that contracts be posted not later than 30 days after the agency enters into the agreement.

This rule has provisions built into it which address some of the concerns which immediately come to mind. First of all, there are a dizzying number of contracts awarded each year so that’s a lot of data to compile and publish, but they’re limiting it to only the larger ones worth more than $150K. Also, the contractor would be able to redact any portions which cover information that would run afoul of national security concerns and, in some cases at least, allow them to protect proprietary trade secrets. But the 400 major contractors represented by the Professional Services Council are still bucking this idea.

But the plan presents a workload problem and would bring “zero benefit to the government,” said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the 400-company Professional Services Council. “The tension here is between the value to the public versus the [resources required to post the] numbers of contracts covered,” he told Government Executive.

“A quick look at a database shows that almost 200,000 transactions would be covered by the bill. That’s an awful lot of work for both government and industry to review.” The process would require the contractor to make redactions, then the government would review them, and “they’d have a conversation back and forth.”

The argument raised by the PSC isn’t entirely without merit, but it also shouldn’t be a show stopper. Yes, that’s a ton of documentation to review, but this really should be an effort targeting work going forward, not the archives of past contracts. And speaking as somebody who has worked at a government contractor in the past, I can tell you that there are already plenty of steps on the path to being awarded such a contract. If everyone goes into the process knowing that they will have to publish the final agreement (minus the aforementioned security and patent related material) it seems as if it could be smoothly incorporated into their routine.

Their other argument is that the effort would be essentially redundant because people can already find out all sorts of information about government contracts at the USA Spending website. That’s a great resource to be sure, but it’s both staggeringly dodgy to navigate and incomplete in the information provided. If it were serving the public interest fully we wouldn’t have such a backlog of FOIA requests concerning federal contracts.

Take a look through that site yourself. I went in and did a quick search on “Lockheed” just as a test. The site spits out 200 results, all of which are only listed under the names of the various Lockheed facilities involved without a hint as to what sort of work was being done. At random I picked out one of their facilities in Arizona, discovering that the division in question had already landed well over $2M in contracts with the Defense Department just this year. Trying several links on that page I was never able to find out more details on what they got the money for beyond a description of, “Engineering and Technical Services.” Probably accurate, but not terribly helpful.

In other words, if you don’t already have a contract number and some specifics of what you’re looking for, this site isn’t particularly user friendly in terms of reviewing where your tax dollars are going. Having a searchable, online database such as the one being proposed could make things a lot easier, and it would certainly be worth a couple of extra steps in the contract award process. This is your money we’re talking about, and if the government is handing it out to contractors for non-classified work, you deserve to know about it.