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Losing accountability?

By Steve Lilienthal
web posted August 16, 2004

The Federal Government spends hundreds of billions on contractors, a figure that has no doubt risen sharply since the United States became involved in Iraq.

If citizens want to know who receives the money and how it is being spent, the answer should be a snap, right? After all, we are a government for, of, and by the people.

All you have to do is to visit a website operated by the Government Services Administration.

Not so fast. Remember it's the Federal Government we are discussing. Even their moves to promote greater economy and efficiency tend to be cumbersome and costly, too.

The GSA transferred its database on Federal contracting to a private-sector company called Global Computer Enterprises (GCE), the recipient in May 2003 of a multi-million dollar contract to run the system. At the time, GSA Deputy Associate Administrator for Acquisition Policy David Drabkin proclaimed this initiative to be "a critical e-government initiative because the award data that it collects helps Congress and the public understand how the Government spends taxpayer funds." The GSA, in announcing the goals of the Federal Procurement Data System, proclaimed that it would "provide public web access to all the data in real time."

One year later, there is less understanding of what companies are winning federal contracts funded by your tax dollars. GCE has yet to post the promised quarterly data on federal contracting and GSA is of little help filling in the black hole of information black hole that now exists.

In short, there is an apparent lack of strong public accountability when it comes to Federal contracting.

Fiscal conservatives concerned about keeping tabs on ballooning federal costs have good reason to be concerned about this. Are companies winning contracts based on competitive bids or are more bids simply noncompetitive? The database could supply the answer.

What needs to be made crystal-clear is that even though the GSA has transferred the raw data to the commercial contractor, the public should be able to file FOIA requests to obtain access to the information. This is unclear in that Paul Murphy, President of Eagle Eye Publishers, had submitted two FOIA requests to the GSA on April 29, 2004 only to have them denied by GSA Deputy Associate Director David Drabkin who stated that the "GSA no longer collects this data from Federal agencies. This data is provided directly to Global Computer Enterprises, Inc. the company that owns and operates the FPDS-NG (i.e., Federal Procurement Data System - New Generation)." GSA's response is troubling in that it appears to be clamping down on access that should be readily available to the public. Drabkin asserted in the letter "incoming data is not an agency record of GSA."

Furthermore, despite GSA's having made available the records involving federal contracting at a relatively low cost to non-profits involving federal contracting, there is uncertainty over whether GCE's promise, as told to Washington Technology, of even more information being made easily available to the public will turn out to be reality or just PR hype. Will there be fair pricing to non-profit watchdog organizations or will GCE be able to charge much higher prices than in the past, particularly troubling in that the outsourcing of the Federal Government's procurement information was supposed to promote greater public access and accountability.

A coalition of organizations including The Heritage Foundation, Free Congress Foundation, and Citizens Against Government Waste has joined with a number of other watchdog groups including Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, George Washington University's National Security Archive and the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press to ensure that the data on Federal contracts in previous years which had once been readily available to the public remain so and that the public should be able to access future reports on Federal contracting and do so inexpensively.

The ball is now in the courts of GSA and GCE and it will be interesting to see how they respond.

Steve Lilienthal is Director of the Center for Privacy and Technology Policy at the Free Congress Foundation.

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