An Interview with the Sunlight Foundation on Transparency in Public Procurement

This post, written by Jonathan Messinger, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum. 

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve discussed reports by the Sunlight Foundation—a nonprofit aimed at increasing government transparency—focusing specifically on transparency in public procurement. You can read our thoughts on their state of local procurement survey. Sunlight also came up with a set of guidelines for open data in procurement, which includes suggestions for how to share information on the procurement process and the participants in the procurement, as well as ways to make the info most useful. With the foundation doing so much work in procurement, I thought it’d be good to get Sunlight’s Developer Kaitlin Devine and Research Fellow Alexander Furnas on the phone to talk about some of the common issues in procurement transparency, and how we can fix them.

What are the biggest challenges to increasing transparency at the federal level?

Devine: The worst thing about the process is that contracts are managed largely via e-mail. The Republic of Georgia manages 100% of their contracts through an e-procurement system. But in the U.S., there’s a solicitation on Fedbizzopps.gov, then the contractor submits a bid by e-mailing a person. It’s impossible to go back later and create a portal with the information from that bid, it’s just in somebody’s inbox and they many not even work there anymore. The information isn’t centralized, it’s scattered across individual procurement officers.

It isn’t really clear how Fedbizopps and USAspending.gov fit together in the procurement system. The award ID in Fedbizopps is supposed to match the ID in USAspending, but it’s not clear that it always does. If you’re trying to walk back to the original solicitations, even if theoretically you have all of the requirements, you can’t really do that. For instance, the threshold for posting awards to FBO is $100,000, but on USAspending it’s $25,000, so there’s a whole section of things we can’t even walk back.

Someone I talked to before said, whenever someone launches a new portal, search for the contract that built that portal on its own site, and if you can’t find it then it’s a failure. With USAspending.gov, if you search on the site for who built it, you can’t find it.

What countries are doing it better?

Devine: Georgia is a little more complete. Eastern bloc countries have a huge transparency push right now around contracting. There are three piles of information we want to see, and Russia is definitely trying to hook performance to contract award, to the pre-contracting piece. Those three things are often thought of as being separate, but there’s more effort to tie all three of those phases together. There should be a consistent ID for this whole process.

Furnas: In our international case studies, in Slovakia and the Philippines, this middle section is where there the most manipulation in terms of intentional corruption happens. They write requirements for contractors that selects out all but their favorite contractor. They can follow all the laws but still have written the contract for a favorite contractor, and then there are lots of modifications along the way, so the end deliverable is much different. But without that middle piece, it’s hard to see what happens.

To continue reading this interview, click here

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