Yesterday morning the Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight held a hearing on contractor performance information and its ease of use for oversight purposes. Senator Claire McCaskill, Chairwoman of the subcommittee, politely but intensely grilled Kevin Youel Page, the GSA representative, on the lack of information in the contractor performance databases, noting that CGI Federal still did not have negative performance ratings reported to the databases, despite their extremely public failure to deliver a functioning Healthcare.gov. The Chairwoman even went so far as to do a live demo of the web-based performance databases, noting the inability to use the back button in any browser other than Internet Explorer, saying the feature was “pretty basic in 2014″.
Chairwoman McCaskill zeroed in on several issues that are critical to improving oversight of contractors. She repeatedly asked Page why past performance of contractors was considered privileged, source selection sensitive material. In fact, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) defines past performance as sensitive material that should not be disclosed publicly. But this needs to change. By protecting this information, it not only makes this information more difficult to access by contractors in other areas of the government, but prevents this information from being shared with citizen watchdogs and local governments, which often use the same contractors. We hope McCaskill and her colleagues pursue changes to the FAR that allow this information to be transparent and publicly available.
The committee also discussed the problems with contracting officers being able to reliably identifying companies. For example, McCaskill noted that Lockheed Martin has over 80 different DUNS numbers (the current identification system used for government contractors), making it nearly impossible for contracting officers to reliably identify and report performance information on them. Indeed, this has long been an issue in not only government contracting, but also in financial markets, patent filings, and campaign finance. Probably the most egregious example mentioned in the hearing was the case of AMS, a company that contracting officers had identified as having multiple performance issues when contracting with the government. This company was later acquired, and renamed to CGI Federal. That simple name change allowed AMS (now CGI Federal) to bid on and receive government contracts without their previous performance record surfacing.
However there were several heartening take-aways from the hearing that indicate GSA is on the right track to fixing some of these issues. When responding to McCaskill’s questions on identifying companies, Page said that they were considering several options besides DUNS numbers, including CAGE codes, which the federal government maintains, but also the Global Legal Entity Identifier system that is being developed by the Financial Stability Board, in conjunction with the G8 countries. This effort has seen remarkable progress in the last two years and is by far the most advanced effort to track company registrations and the hierarchical structure of company networks. It’s very exciting to see that there is interest from the executive branch in moving away from proprietary, expensive, and poorly implemented DUNS numbers to a more effective and open system.
Page also stated in his testimony that GSA was moving towards an open source platform for a lot of the above mentioned databases. The current effort to consolidate all of these systems has been plagued by cost overruns, poor functionality, and schedule delays. We think a move towards open source will help get this effort back on track and prevent future vendor lock in.
McCaskill concluded the hearing by stating that reforming these systems was “complicated and hard, but really important”. Updating these systems, which are the backbone of contract oversight, has been long delayed, because it is difficult. But we can’t afford to not do it. We need to give our contracting officers tools that belong in this decade so that they can prevent the kind of contractor misconduct that is so prevalent now.
Each year, billions of federal tax dollars are given to state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) to be spent according to priorities developed by state DOTs and local entities, primarily Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs). For fiscal year 2014, $37 billion was apportioned to the states. At least every four years, states must publish a list of projects that will be funded by federal tax dollars. This list of projects is known as a Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).
In Lifting the Veil on Bicycle and Pedestrian Spending — a recent report by Advocacy Advance (a dynamic partnership of the Alliance for Biking & Walking and the League of American Bicyclists to boost local and state bicycle and pedestrian advocacy efforts), we look at STIP documents to better understand planned investments in facilities for people who bike and walk – and just as importantly why we don’t know more about these planned investments. The Sunlight Foundation’s Open Data Principles and Guidelines were extremely helpful during the writing of this report and are great resources as advocates and agency staff work to improve this important data.
Minimal project descriptions
Although the STIP document is published midway through the federal transportation planning process, the average project reported in a STIP was described with a sentence or two. This lack of information, combined with the widespread use of codes and terms of art, undermine the ability of the public to understand planned projects. Without a strong understanding of the pipeline of projects in these documents, it is difficult to assess whether stated priorities and policies are reflected in plans. Several states were able to provide additional information upon request.
“Statewide” documents are often not statewide
The STIP is a product of collaboration between state DOTs and other entities within the state that make transportation decisions the most important of which are MPOs. However, only 29 states provided statewide documents that included information from all MPOs within the state and in several of those states MPOs used a different reporting format. This lack of coordination makes an already difficult to understand document more complicated. It was also more likely to lead to some documents provided to not be searchable. Several states were able to provide coordinated statewide data upon request.
Default is not open
During the course of research for the report, we contacted many state DOTs and MPOs to see if better data was available. While 12 states provided a spreadsheet of all or part of their STIP publicly, another 20 were able to provide one upon request. This shows that there is a latent ability to provide more accessible data, but that state DOTs do not provide this better data as a way of doing business. Project lists in spreadsheet format are important because they enable easy searching, sorting and analyzing of the information provided.
It is not uncommon for state DOTs to be able to provide many sorts of better data upon request — but the request must be made, sometimes with lengthy follow-up and at times without a clear place to make a request.
Fortunately, there are some promising signs that better STIP data and therefore a better understanding of how our federal tax dollars will be spent on transportation projects, is in the future:
Several state DOTs have initiatives to coordinate long-term and short-term planning processes in order to provide more information. Most promising is the work of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Highway Division to provide an impressively comprehensive project information database that includes information on subjects as diverse as contracts and design choices.
18 state DOTs and many MPOs have interactive maps or searchable online databases that provide more accessible ways to interact with the data contained in the STIP. The Oregon Department of Transportation’s Project Tracking tool and the Nashville Area MPO’s Interactive TIP Database are two good examples of innovative tools with visual components that provide more access to STIP-related data.
Although federal law requires state DOTs and MPOs to produce STIP documents that lay out projects that will be paid for with federal tax dollars, current reporting practices make these documents unwieldy and undermine their ability to provide effective oversight. Lifting the Veil on Bicycle and Pedestrian Spending provides an assessment of the states based upon 10 reporting-related criteria, highlights current best practices and makes recommendations on providing comprehensive, searchable and sortable information in the future.
Ken McLeod is the Legal Specialist at the League of American Bicyclists and a member of the Advocacy Advance partnership between the League and the Alliance for Biking & Walking. He provides technical support to advocates attempting to pass state legislation and conducts research to ensure that Advocacy Advance has the best possible understanding of federal transportation programs. Ken joined the League in 2012 after graduating from William & Mary School of Law and he is a licensed attorney in the state of Virginia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including outside spending in Florida, an EU asset freeze, and a transparency turnaround in San Diego.
Organizing for Action, President Obama’s nonprofit advocacy group, is in some hot water after it was revealed that its executive director helped arrange a White House meeting for a prospective donor. The group has “tightened its fundraising policies,” in response. (Washington Post)
Candidates in a special election to fill a Florida Congressional seat are both being outspent, quite handily, by outside groups. Of the $12.5 million that has been spent so far, less than one-third was spent by the contenders, Alex Sink (D) and David Jolly (R). (Public Integrity)
The second round of Presidential Innovation Fellows got their projects online this week and, at first look, they are quite impressive. (E Pluribus Unum)
The European Union is planning to freeze assets of a number of officials implicated in massive corruption in the Ukraine. (Transparency International)
This new report explores the development of parliamentary research services in Central Europe and the Western Balkans. (NDI)
State and Local News
The Pittsburgh City Council gave its preliminary approval to open data legislation earlier this week. A final vote on the bill, which was posted online and attracted nearly 100 comments, is scheduled for March 11. (Pittsburgh Business Times)
On his first full day in office, the new Mayor of San Diego reversed a decision made by the previous, interim mayor to delete all city emails after one year. The interim Mayor’s decision had caused widespread outrage. (KPBS San Diego)
Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!
President Barack Obama delivers statement on Syria, whose most recent U.S. ambassador came from the ranks of the professional U.S. Foreign Service, not Democratic campaign donors. (Photo credit: Lawrence Jackson/The White House) President Obama’s … [...]
TransparencyCamp — Sunlight’s annual opengov “unconference” — is rapidly approaching! For the last five years, TCamp has brought people together to share their knowledge about new technologies and transparency policies to make our government work for the people — and to help people work smarter with our government. Many people have already signed up, and you can join them — registration is open now!
So, want to know more? Here are the top ten things you need to know to be a savvy camper! (You can use the list to the right to navigate around, too.)
You’ve heard us call TCamp an unconference — what is that anyways? Unconferences are events run by participants. Attendees set the agenda for what’s discussed, lead the sessions and workshops that fill the schedule and create an environment of innovation and productive discussion. For TCamp, the events focus around government transparency, opening up public data and more! Watch the video below for a full unconference run-down.
Everyone is welcome at TCamp! From opengov veterans to transparency trainees and anyone in between, we believe all attendees bring an important contribution to the environment and thought-leadership of an unconference. If you’re interested in opengov, open data or transparency, TCamp is for you!
With this inclusiveness in mind, we developed the TCamp Ambassadors Program. To help first-timers reap the benefits of the entire TCamp experience, we’re pairing first-timers with seasoned vets who will be their ambassadors into the community. Be sure to sign up as an Ambassador or as a newbie who’d like a buddy on your registration form. Perks include meeting new folks, making new connections and some nomsy noms.
Registration is a breeze! Just head on over to the registration page, pick your ticket type and fill out the subsequent form and payment information. Easy!
In addition to the TCamp Ambassadors Program, there are a couple classes that campers can register as:
Camper: This is the basic ticket type — a classic camper!
Student: Students in college or high school get a discounted rate!
Super Camper: The actual cost of attending TransparencyCamp is over $130 per person. If you register as a Super Camper, you’ll help us cover the true cost of TCamp!
Volunteer Camp Counselor: As a Camp Counselor, you will help with registration, keep sessions on time, direct lost campers and help with other troubleshooting. If you have a knack for logistics and a friendly customer service demeanor, we need your help!
Once you sign up, you should get a confirmation email from Sunlight noting your registration — congrats, you’re going to TCamp!
Besides the basics, not much! For registration, just remember your name and we’ll take care of the rest — no tickets to print out!
If you’re planning to use a projector during a presentation, please try to bring your own adaptor. We’ll have a limited supply to work with, and, while every room will have a projector, we can’t promise we’ll have the right adapters for your computer.
Wi-fi will be provided, so feel free to bring your electronics along. Chargers for your devices is also a good idea.
Anything that makes you feel comfortable! TCamp is a come-as-you-are environment. If that means jeans, sandals, ties or pearls to you, then so be it. Most people dress casually — but feel free to wear whatever you want!
The answer to the most important question: yes! The cost of food is included in your registration so all attendees will get breakfast and lunch on both days of TCamp. Due to popular demand, we’ll be bringing back food trucks for lunch, so there will be several options to choose from. Another bonus: We will be offering vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options for all campers.
In addition to lunch, we’ll also be providing a light breakfast as well as coffee to get you through the day. Even opengov champs need their caffeine fix!
There are a couple other things for campers to do outside of the main event. Let’s say you want to get a jump on things — sign up for Lobby Day! Join the Sunlight Network for breakfast and a briefing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 29 before going to the offices of your senators and representative to discuss transparency issues like better lobbying disclosure, smarter open data and mandatory electronic filing of campaign finance reports.
If you want a more relaxed time, head on over to the Sunlight Happy Hour! After a long first day of TCamp, unwind with your fellow campers at the Clarendon Grill, located close by at 1101 North Highland Street, Arlington, Va. Arrive at 6 p.m. for light fare and drink specials.
Check out TransparencyCamp.org for a more comprehensive rundown of the event; you can sign up for email updates at the bottom of that page, too. You can also tweet your question to @TCampDC, and keep track of the hashtag “#TCamp14” to follow the discussion online.
So, there you have it: what you need to know about TransparencyCamp 2014. A very special thanks to our sponsors so far: Google.org, George Mason University, Beekeeper Group, Granicus, GitHub, Socrata, ForumOne and the New Organizing Institute.
Ad Hawk, Sunlight’s free app to identify and learn more about political ads as they air, is now in the App Store with new iOS 7 optimization and other fixes. We collect political ads (more than 5,600 so far!) to generate an audio fingerprint… [...]
The struggle in Ukraine between supporters of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych and those calling for regime change has spilled into the halls of Congress and the State Department.
Documents showing how both sides in the far-off battle have taken their case to Washington are available on Document Cloud, where Sunlight uploads them as part of the foundation’s effort to make registrations filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act searchable and sortable. Document Cloud is a public site created by Investigative Reporters and Editors, a journalism cooperative.
A search through Sunlight’s FARA documents using the key word “Ukraine” shows that K Street powerhouses have lined up on all sides of the battle. Not only to these documents show which government officials have been contacted by the lobbyists on behalf of dissidents and pro-government groups, they also reveal that Russian entities, such as the Gazprom, have entered the public relations fray against Ukraine.
Sunlight, along with a host of other news outlets, has reported on the ongoing lobbying by opposing Ukrainian interests — and the disclosure issues facing observers trying to track the lobbying trail. While the pro-Yanukovych European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECMU) has avoided the more rigorous disclosure process required of foreign governments by the Foreign Agent Registration Act, plenty of groups with a hand in the ongoing struggle are registered in the FARA database.
Arnall Golden, which represents the Ukrainian parliament member Dmitry Shpenov, listed meetings with a number of Capitol Hill lawmakers on the nation’s energy plans, including House Speaker John Boehner.
As Kevin Bogardus of The Hill reported, Oleksander Tymoshenko — husband of former opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — has paid more than $920,000 over the past year to powerhouse lobbying firm Wiley Rein. Here, former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., has lobbied members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and top figures in the White House and State Department — including President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — to pressure the Yanukovych administration to release his wife from prison, where she had been since 2011. Veteran Foreign Relations committee member Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has been one of the most vocalproponents of the jailed prime minister’s release.
FARA documents filed by Wiley Rein also show Slattery was in direct contact with President Yanukovych — among other Ukrainian politicians — last February, meeting with the president to discuss the “status of [the] case and possible resolution.” Yulia Tymoshenko was freed from prison in February.
Wiley Rein, however, is not the only horse in this race. As reported by Reuters, K Street firms Mercury and the Podesta Group were paid some $560,000 and $900,000 respectively by ECMU for such topics as “[i]ssues pertaining to relations between Ukraine and the United States” to pushing back against H.R. 28, which would formally condemn the “persecution of political opposition leader Yulia as well as other political prisoners…”
A list of contacts made by lobbyists representing Ukrainian interests are viewable in FARA documents collected by Sunlight from the Department of Justice.
After extensive civil society campaigning, Chile has a new law on lobbying. Due to the efforts of civil society and the near unanimous support of both houses of the country’s parliament, Chile has become the first country in Latin America with legislation on lobbying disclosure.
Despite its weaknesses, the law represents an important step forward for lobbying transparency in Chile. In the new disclosure system, registration is voluntary. While this may significantly limit how the new regulation might capture lobbying activity, the law outlines a unique way of providing such information in the absence of a mandatory register.
The campaign and civil society
Felipe Heusser, the executive director of Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente and one of the leaders of the diverse civil society coalition that pushed for the new law, argues that the campaign achieved its goals thanks to both its strategy and willingness to be pragmatic. In terms of strategy, the coalition embraced both web-based advocacy and more traditional direct lobbying. It was due to this combination of these approaches, says Heusser, that the campaign was able to help draft and ensure the passage of the law.
The coalition was also pragmatic in its demands: rather than pushing for a perfect piece of legislation, they were willing to work within the bounds of what was possible. This pragmatism did a few things. First, it allowed them to push for the passage of a bill that, despite imperfections, could be a significant first step. Additionally, their reasonable approach and willingness to negotiate likely engendered a strong working relationship with the politicians and officials on the other side of the table.
The work of civil society, of course, is not complete. Not only will organizations continue to push for better lobbying disclosure practices, they will also play an important role disseminating lobbying information to the public. For example, consider Poderopedia, a Chilean website that explores the relationships between individuals and organizations in the public and private sectors. By mapping these relations through simple data visualization, the tool allows users to get a better sense of the interactions between the private and public sectors that shape the policy making process. A product of crowdsourcing, Poderopedia is a collaborative platform that relies on contributions from users.
Another important tool is Inspector de Intereses. Developed by Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente, this tool matches elected officials’ voting records with their financial disclosures to detect potential conflicts of interest. While Inspector de Intereses doesn’t explore lobbying information in particular, it does reveal the potential influence that private interests might have over public policy and the decisions of elected officials. Tools like this help citizens, journalists, and other actors make sense of often confusing narratives, and are therefore an integral part of citizen oversight and public scrutiny.
While the campaign was effective in pushing for and ensuring the passage of the bill, it is still unclear how strong this new law will be. Registration is entirely voluntary, and thus the activities of many active lobbyists will remain hidden from the public. As Miguel Paz of Poderopedia argues, in the absence of a legally enforceable system the success of the register will rely on the willingness and honesty of lobbyists.
That being said, the law provides an interesting alternative. If a lobbyist is interested in meeting with a public official, they have to submit a meeting form saying, among other things, who they represent and what they want. Along with a summary of the meeting, this information is added to the public register by the independent Information Commissioner. If there is a high level of compliance, this system could provide the public with a more robust picture of lobbying activities.
One aspect of the legislation that will need to be addressed is which government officials are covered by the law. As currently written, a lobbyist meeting with a mid or low level public official does not need to submit a meeting form. Importantly, civil society organizations are encouraged to request changes to the list of government officials covered under the legislation.
Furthermore, Chile’s law seems to be one of the very few in the world that places part of the burden of disclosure on public employees. After meeting with a lobbyist, officials must submit a summary of their meeting to the Information Commissioner, who will then publish the summary. As far as we know, only Poland requires government officials to play a role in disclosure. There are arguments for and against involving public officials in lobbying disclosure, but little evidence proving whether or not such as arrangement can be effective. We are curious to see how this plays out in Chile.
The law has passed, but the fight for lobbying transparency in Chile isn’t over. Cooperation between government officials and civil society was a crucial part of getting this law passed, and continued collaboration will help ensure that the law is successfully implemented. In the coming months, a few critical things missing from the law should be addressed. Data standards, for example, are not mentioned in the legislation. Making lobbying information accessible, open and searchable is critical. Tools that try to make sense of lobbying and influence in the country — such as Poderopedia and Inspector de Intereses — would be significantly improved with open, high-quality lobbying data.
Weaknesses aside, this law represents a significant first step for Chile and the region — one that can, and should, be improved upon going forward.
Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including an end for Steve Stockman, corruption costs in Europe, and open data in the Constitution State.
Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) easily dismissed a quixotic primary challenge from Representative Steve Stockman (R-TX). Stockman has run into numerous campaign finance related problems since being elected to Congress in 2012. (Washington Post)
The economic cost of corruption in Europe is estimated at around 120 billion Euros and the EU government has begun taking steps to combat the problem. (Open Society)
The UK government is preparing to spend 1.5 million pounds to help agencies as they work to open up their data.(Future Gov)
State and Local News
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signed an open data executive order this week. The order will help state agencies take the first steps towards opening their data. (The Hartford Courant)
The harsh northeastern winter has caused a seemingly endless stream of potholes to grow on the roads of New Jersey. Luckily for motorists, a professor at Rutgers has developed an app to track all of the bumps and craters. (Government Technology)