Stan Soloway

COMMENTARY

Transparency initiatives teeter off balance

In some areas, too little or too much information is being shared

The Obama administration has made an unprecedented commitment to increasing transparency across the government. This commitment has manifested itself in several ways: The Open Government Initiative, Recovery.gov, changes to how elements of the budget are reported, the advent of publicly shared dashboards that chart key programs and more. Unfortunately, in some key areas, efforts to increase transparency have been beset by a push to share too much information that rightly should be protected or withhold important information that rightly should be shared.

In June, without discussion or debate, the Senate passed an amendment that would make public significant portions of the new Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, or FAPIIS. When FAPIIS was first mandated and after much discussion and debate in Congress, it was agreed that access would remain limited to government officials. This step was taken because of the sensitive role the database would serve in helping to inform federal acquisition decisions. Specifically, it would contain a range of proprietary and complex information and also sensitive government information that pertains to contract administration and other legitimately private matters.

The Senate amendment would reverse that well-thought-out decision and, in so doing, invite the misuse of and misstatements about the data by an uninformed audience, creating a wide array of unfortunate effects. This potentially destructive amendment was blithely agreed to in the name of transparency, without regard to consequences or fundamental fairness.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is the Defense Department’s insourcing initiative. As part of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ otherwise worthy effort to rebuild critical skills, principally within the acquisition workforce, the department is assuming a whopping 40 percent savings for every position that is insourced. This assumption has enormous implications and has generated more than a little skepticism. Internal Air Force documents not intended for public release but obtained by the media and other sources indicate that the department’s underlying analysis simply and inappropriately substituted fully burdened contract costs for internal personnel costs, thus raising serious questions about the accuracy of the analysis or that of the 40 percent assumption. Despite numerous requests, the department has refused to release the analysis, and the resource management decision (RMD) containing it remains classified. As the internal Air Force documents mentioned above make clear, the analytics are available only to senior officials.

Two-thirds of the positions identified by DOD for insourcing fall outside the secretary’s initiative. They are not subject to the RMD and thus are supposed to be subjected to rigorous individual cost analyses. However, it is equally challenging to get information about those analyses. One company, facing the loss of a five-year, $230 million contract, received a summary of the cost analysis only after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents show net savings from this insourcing of only one-fifth of 1 percent and higher per-person costs for performing the work in-house, even while excluding a range of significant short-term and even more significant long-term costs associated with government performance. Ironically, the analysis also included some contract costs that were never actually incurred — and that exceeded the total savings estimated by the analysis. Here, as with the RMD, the integrity of the analyses is of paramount importance, particularly given DOD’s acute fiscal challenges. More to the point, isn’t this precisely the kind of information the public has a right to see?

We need to address imbalances that range from too much transparency to too little, from what could easily become an unfair, punitive and dangerous approach to information oversharing on FAPIIS to the Defense Department’s undersharing of what should be routine public information. Transparency can be important and valuable, but right now we’re just not getting it right.

About the Author

Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council.

Reader Comments

Thu, Jul 1, 2010 Neil Gordon Project On Government Oversight

Mr. Soloway,

Your “transparency for thee but not for me” position just doesn’t wash, especially when a growing segment of the contracting industry is now willing to concede that at least some of the information contained in FAPIIS should be shared with the public. At a recent ABA briefing on FAPIIS, a contractor attorney admitted they face an impossible task keeping FAPIIS under wraps because much of the information in it is already publicly available.

To maintain your staunch opposition to the release of civil, criminal and administrative responsibility data – all of which is readily accessible through the media, court documents, government and corporate press releases, SEC filings and, of course, POGO’s own publicly-posted misconduct database – makes absolutely no sense, particularly when in the same breath you demand that the government lay all of its cards on the table with regard to its insourcing initiative. Contractors often characterize their relationship with the government as a “partnership,” but it’s not an effective partnership when only one of the partners is transparent.

POGO has long advocated the public availability of FAPIIS. The public has the right to know how the government spends hundreds of billions of dollars of their money each year on contracts and grants. Most recently, we came out in support of Senator Sanders’ amendment to release some FAPIIS data to the public, even though it would exempt past performance data.

If a growing number of your organization’s members can live with the release of all other FAPIIS data, why can't you?

Neil Gordon
Project On Government Oversight

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

What is your e-mail address?

My e-mail address is:

Do you have a password?

Forgot your password? Click here
close
SEARCH
 Top 100 Slideshow
contracts DB

Trending

  • Dive into our Contract Award database

    In an exclusive for WT Insider members, we are collecting all of the contract awards we cover into a database that you can sort by contractor, agency, value and other parameters. You can also download it into a spreadsheet. Read More

  • Is SBA MIA on contractor fraud? Nick Wakeman

    Editor Nick Wakeman explores the puzzle of why SBA has been so silent on the latest contractor fraud scandal when it has been so quick to act in other cases. Read More

Webcasts