Administration Backpedals on Key Transparency Initiative

Transparency, apparently, has its limits.

The Obama administration might be reducing contract spending, but don't expect the contracts the government signs to show up online anytime soon. Withdrawing a proposal made last May, the administration quietly announced yesterday that it's abandoning what has turned out to be a tepid examination of posting federal contracts online.

Posting contracts online fit perfectly within President Obama's now-famous Transparency and Open Government initiative; indeed, the May notice mentioned this very fact as justification for the proposal.

It seems, however, that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has been listening to the private sector's outlandish complaints about potentially releasing proprietary information.

Now, as far as the budget office is concerned, "... existing acquisition systems ... provide certain information on Government [sic] contracts that is readily available ...," including the Federal Procurement Data System - Next Generation (FPDS-NG),, and the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Scott Amey over at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) adeptly knocks this argument down:

Despite many advances in technology, it appears that the President is now happy with the status quo and the ancient ways of gathering spending information ... Those systems are dated and provide only summary data, and FOIA is so slow that a long-term contract can run its course prior to a request or receiving a copy of the FOIAed contract.

Right. The whole idea behind putting contracts online is that the public shouldn't have to go to all these different places to find this information and then put it all together.

Moreover, FOIA?! Seriously?! I'm absolutely dumbstruck that the government's satisfied with the public sending hundreds of thousands of requests that bog down federal employees for information that could easily be put online alleviating the problem.

On a positive note, OMB rejected the argument that posting contracts online would reduce competition – a claim made by several public comments in response to the initial proposal – and recognized, "Transparency could have the opposite effect and enhance competition." Open government groups have been making the latter argument for decades, often against the fallacious claims of the business and contracting communities.

But that's the only bright spot, because with the administration seemingly abandoning any attempt in the near-term to amend the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to require the posting of contracts online, federal government transparency has been dealt quite a blow.

Image by Flickr user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.

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