July 23, 2003

July 23, 2003 | Commentary on

Help Shine the Internet's Light on Government Contracts

You want honesty in government, right? Enough to take 15 minutes out of your busy day to encourage Uncle Sam to jumpstart an obscure but potentially historic project that could shine more light on Washington than ever before?

 

There is no formal name for the project, which would require all federal departments and agencies to post their billions of dollars worth of contracts on the Internet for public review. Even so, supporters of the effort know it could transform government transparency and accountability. Now the government is inviting public comments on how to move forward on the project.

 

The project was first championed in the Bush administration by former Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, and has generated support from a broad spectrum of advocacy groups and think tanks, including The Heritage Foundation and the Consumer Project on Technology, which first proposed the idea in 1999.

 

Why is putting federal contracts on the Internet so important? Uncle Sam signs about 10,000 contracts annually, with a cumulative worth of more than $200 billion. Those contracts are used to buy everything from advice to zinc and every dollar spent under those contracts comes out of your pocket and mine via taxes.

 

But just try to get a copy of a typical federal agency contract under the Freedom of Information Ac. It would be easier to rifle the safe in Col. Sanders' old Kentucky home to get the recipe for Extra Crispy Kentucky Fried Chicken.

 

Requiring federal departments and agencies to post the full text of all contracts paid with tax dollars would do more to clean up government and restore public trust than any other single reform.

 

Why? There is no more effective deterrent to wasteful or corrupt federal spending than the certainty that it's all going to be "out there" in the public domain where citizens - including reporters, congressional investigators and officials from competing companies that lost the contract bid -- can see the details and get the names of the responsible officials.

 

How much waste is there in the government? Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a private citizens group that specializes in finding wasteful government spending and proposing ways to eliminate it, estimate that at least $180 billion could be saved this year and more than $1.3 trillion over the next five years.

 

Think how much more wasteful spending could be identified by groups like CAGW if all those contracts were posted in the public policy sunshine via the Internet instead of being locked away in the darkness of some bureaucrats' file cabinet?

 

Eliminating waste in the contracting process should make government more efficient, too. Just as commercial advertising encourages businesses to compete and lower prices, posting federal contracts on the Internet would force government bidders to keep their bids as low as possible in order to be remain competitive. And they would have to perform as required under their contracts because everybody would know what they promised in their bid.

 

If this sounds to you like a worthwhile project, you can say so between now and Aug. 5 by sending your comments to the General Services Administration's Regulatory Secretariat at 1800 F Street NW, Room 4035, ATT: Laurie Duarte, Washington, D.C. 20405. Or e-mail them to:

Notice.2003-N01@gsa.gov.

 

All comments received by Aug. 5 will appear in The Federal Register. Federal officials are especially interested in hearing your comments on how broad the initial demonstration project should be. They also want to hear your comments on how the project should handle issues such as protecting a bidder's proprietary business information.

 

There is no limit to how long your comments can be. Just be sure to mention Notice 2003-N01, which is bureaucratese for the Internet contract-posting project at OMB. And tell them to put as many contracts on the Internet as possible - as soon as possible. You have a right to know.

 

Mark Tapscott is director of media services and the Guardabassi fellow for The Heritage Foundation.

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire