by Ralph Nader
July 19, 2003
Contracting out what the Federal government does and what government needs is a large part of our economy. The former includes letting corporations perform more military and intelligence functions; while the latter has included buying supplies like fuel, paper, food, medicines and vehicles. Taken together, they amount to spending trillions of dollars over the past decade - your tax dollars.
The Bush administration seeks to go further by proposing to contract out the work of nearly 450,000 civil servants in various agencies and departments. Sometimes even the businesses on the receiving end of this "privatization" are a bit shocked.
A few years ago, a weapons company official asked incredulously about the Department of Defense's acquisition reform program giving the munitions industry the power to develop its own testing methods in order to determine whether Pentagon-purchased weapons are in compliance with specifications.
All these procurements and "outsourcing" involve written contracts sometimes hundreds of pages long. It is not easy, to put it mildly, for citizens to get copies of these contracts.
Two of our staffers during the month of May 1999 tried to obtain copies of 81 agreements with companies that the Washington Post reported had received federal government contracts. They called both the businesses and the government agencies that signed the contracts. In no cases were they able to obtain copies of contracts from the companies. None of the federal agencies voluntarily provided copies, prompting our associates that they file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which could take many months to process.
In January 2000 we sent a letter to President Clinton asking his Administration to place government contracts above a certain minimum dollar amount on the web.
These agreements would include, for example, leases for mineral rights from the public lands, research grants, government-industry cooperative agreements, joint ventures for the development of energy efficient cars, consulting contracts, agreements to dispose of nuclear wastes, concession contracts for national parks, licenses to government-owned patents, licenses to use the public spectrum for broadcasting and telecommunications services, agreements with firms that do security clearances for federal agencies, bank bailouts, loan guarantee agreements and many more.
To our surprise, Bill Clinton personally wrote back saying it was an intriguing proposal and that he was sending it over to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review. We never heard from OMB.
With the advent of George W. Bush, we contacted the new head of OMB, Mitch Daniels. We presented the reasons for putting these documents online:
1.) it will enhance competitive bidding and give taxpayers both savings and higher quality performances;
2.) it will let the media focus more incisively on this vast area of government disbursements to inform the wider public;
3.) it will encourage constructive comments and alarms from the citizenry; and
4.) it will stimulate legal and economic research by scholars interested in broader policy and structural topics related to government procurement, transfers, subsidies and giveaways. For instance, how to use federal buying dollars to advance other national goals such as energy efficiency, recycling, safety, health and innovation.
Many of these agreements are closed door operations between government officials and the often close-knit vendor community. Government lawyers negotiating these contracts do not often drive strong bargains for taxpayers, especially if they are pressured from the politicians above them or they intend to work in these industries after they leave public service.
OMB's Mr. Daniels and his associates thought putting these contracts, grants, leases subsidies and so forth on the government's web sites was a good idea. Any sensitive information could be redacted. Many federal agencies already have internal systems for managing contracts in electronic formats.
OMB asked the General Services Administration (GSA) to place a notice and request for comments in the Federal Register (June 6, 2003) on a proposed pilot project "to begin making Federal contracts available to the general public on the worldwide web...to further the Administration's global vision of a citizen-centric E-Government."
This could be the beginning of the biggest window-opening on what government and corporations do in Washington in modern U.S. history. Unless, the vendor lobby squashes GSA and OMB. So in small or large ways, Uncle Sam needs to hear from you, the people. You can send written comments to General Services Administration, 1800 F Street, NW, Room 4035, Washington, DC, 20405 or electronically file by emailing your comments to Notice.2003-NO1@gsa.gov.
Ralph Nader is Americaís leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martinís Press, 2002)