June 28, 2004

June 28, 2004 | Commentary on Taxes

Taxpayers: Keep Out

Want some good news about how the federal government operates?

It's this: The bureaucrats in Washington who run the world's largest buying operation with our tax dollars have a sophisticated Web-based system to monitor how well government contractors do their work.

Dubbed the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS), it's part of "E-Gov," which the federal government is using to make itself more accessible and convenient to Americans. Thousands of Uncle Sam's procurement officials use PPIRS to see how companies bidding for new government contracts have performed in the past.

The system doesn't quite include all of the more than $200 billion worth of contracts issued each year, but E-Gov officials say their goal is for PPIRS to become "a government-wide past performance database." Data on performance by more than 300,000 companies is now included in the system, which officials estimate cost more than $500 million annually to operate.

The bad news is that PPIRS is off-limits to the taxpayers who fund it. All we taxpayers can do is go to the www.ppirs.gov Web site and read the mumbo-jumbo written by government public-relations officials.

Access to PPIRS is limited to the bureaucrats who decide who gets the contracts. Even contractors bidding for federal contracts get to see only the information about them.

The problem is PPIRS has a big "Taxpayers Not Welcome" sign. Joe Blows like you and me who want to see how Company X or Corporation Y did the last time they got a bundle of tax dollars get the PPIRS door slammed shut. I know because that's what happened recently when I asked the folks running PPIRS a few questions via e-mail. Everything was fine when I said I wanted to write about an E-Gov success story, but things changed as soon as I asked to log in to the system, so I could see it in action for myself.

I might as well have asked for the keys to Fort Knox. Permission to log in to the system was out of the question, according to a PPIRS spokesman. But he offered a demonstration and assured me that PPIRS executives would "answer any and all of your questions."

Several days later, even the demo offer was withdrawn. "I have just been made aware that the PPIRS system contains sensitive data that cannot be shared with the public," said Kil-Jae Hong, who manages the "external communications strategy" for PPIRS.

One wonders why the bureaucrat running the system's "external communications strategy" wouldn't already know that PPIRS contains data too sensitive for us Joe Blows to see. Besides, if PPIRS stays behind closed doors, why even have an "external communications strategy"?

Still, I soldiered on, asking Hong if every single piece of information in PPIRS is sensitive and what specific provision of the Freedom of Information Act allowed the whole system to be kept out of the reach of the taxpayers. He said he'd let me know.

It's been two weeks now, and I still don't have the answers to those and other basic questions. I'll share them with you when the answers arrive, if they do.

In the meantime, consider: Here we have a wonderful Web-based tool for evaluating how billions of tax dollars have been spent in years past - but only a cozy circle of privileged bureaucrats can use it. Where are the champions of the public's right to know, the crusading journalists at America's great dailies and broadcast news operations? Using Lexis-Nexis, I searched America's major media outlets and found absolutely no references to PPIRS in the past year. How come?

My guess is nobody in the newsrooms at places like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, CBS or Fox has a clue about PPIRS. (Full disclosure: I spent four extraordinary years at The Washington Times as a reporter and editor.)

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats - aided and abetted by a spendthrift Congress - go merrily on, spending billions of tax dollars behind closed doors. Citizens Against Government Waste recently counted 10,656 new pork-barrel projects, an increase of 13 percent over the 9,362 there were in 2003. And General Accounting Office officials say federal accountings systems are so bad the government has little idea how many desks, computers, cans of paint, printers and copiers or a host of other products are bought with tax dollars each year.

That won't change until we Joe Blows demand access to PPIRS.

Mark Tapscott is director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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