Dec 11, 2013
Let the People Know—Put Full Texts of Government Contracts Online
Posted on Jun 9, 2013
By Ralph Nader
This piece was first published on Ralph Nader’s Web page, Nader.org
Openness in our government is essential for a healthy democracy. When citizens and voters have access to information about the inner workings of their government and representatives, they can cast informed votes. However, when this information remains in the shadows, citizens are left without access to the information necessary for them to properly exercise their civic powers and responsibilities.
Certainly the regular disclosure of how our government spends our tax dollars is extremely important.
In 2006 and 2009, legislation was passed that advanced open government initiatives. With the creation of USASpending.gov in 2006, the public was given access to an online, searchable database that discloses federal financial awards and their recipients. In 2009, the Recovery Act included openness provisions that created a public website to track recovery spending and formed a board that would oversee the Recovery Act funds to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. These were good first steps, but there is much that is left to be done.
Just last month, President Obama signed an Executive Order and a Policy Directive that would officially require data generated by the federal government to be made available to the public online. As with all open government initiatives, this is a welcome development. But again, President Obama and his colleagues in Congress can - and need to - do more.
The DATA Act was reintroduced in the 113th Congress (H.R. 2061 and S. 994) at the end of May 2013 and unanimously passed the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. It aims to improve the quality of publicly accessible government information, set uniform data standards, collect spending data, and examine the information to root out waste, fraud or abuse.
Neither the President’s Executive Order nor the DATA Act, however, has gone far enough. There remains one crucial provision that is notably absent from both proposals: making full contract texts available online. Unfortunately, when it comes to government spending and government contracts, the devil is in the details. Providing this degree of public access to reporters, scholars, taxpayer associations, and more competitive bidders would be an important step forward. It would help keep corruption in check, hold government accountable for its actions, propagate best practices in contracting, give rise to significant taxpayer savings, and encourage fiscal responsibility.
Each year hundreds of billions of dollars in federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses are awarded to corporations. Taxpayers should be able to easily access clear and concise information on how their tax dollars are being spent by the government at all levels. This is especially needed in an era of massive outsourcing to large private corporations.
Concerns about confidentiality or cost of such an endeavor are vastly overblown. The computer age should make it possible to efficiently allow for certain redactions related to only legitimate concerns about genuine trade secrets and national security in contracts before they are posted online in a publicly-available database.
To repeat: Let the people know now. No more secret contracts and other deals.
Putting the full text of these contracts online could give taxpayers both savings and better value; lets the media focus more incisively on this vast area of government disbursements to inform the wider public; encourages constructive comments and alarms from the citizenry; and allows research by scholars specializing in the daily government procurement, transfers, subsidies, giveaways, and bailouts.
For more information contact info(@)nader.org.
New and Improved Comments