Friday, October 31st, 2014

The Obameter

Create a public "Contracts and Influence" database


"Will create a 'contracts and influence' database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them."


Updates

No database has been created

More than a year has passed since we last checked on this promise, and it's no closer to being fulfilled.

"They've talked about a unified influence database, and that just hasn't happened,” said John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to government transparency.

One small sign of progress has come in the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS), which was not previously accessible to the public and now is. Legislation passed last year made it open to the public; records entered since April 15, 2011, are available. The system includes the track record and performance of federal contractors, but it doesn't contain information on contractor lobbying expenditures or campaign contributions.

"It does not talk about lobbyists. It doesn't talk about money,” said Scott Amey, with the independent Project on Government Oversight. "We've been pushing that they create some kind of system that would combine money and campaigns and federal spending. We've always talked about a one-stop shop.”

The closest thing to such a one-stop shop is at the Sunlight Foundation. Their project, InfluenceExplorer.com, pulls information from various government sources to provide "an overview of campaign finance, lobbying, earmark, contractor misconduct and federal spending data.”

Type in the name of a corporation, and you can see which candidates it has donated to and how much it has spent on lobbyists. Likewise, look up the name of contributor and see where his or her money is going.

But Wonderlich says it's no replacement for the government doing this itself. An outside group has no power to mandate how information is disclosed and how well it stays updated, he said.

Wonderlich said Sunlight stays in touch with White House officials about the administration's promised database.

"I know they haven't forgotten about it,” he said.

Obama made transparency and openness in government a major part of his platform during the campaign. Creating this influence database was one of his specific pledges toward that goal. Unless and until some action is taken, we rate this a Promise Broken.

Sources:

Interview with Scott Amey, Project on Government Oversight, Dec. 2, 2011

Interview with John Wonderlich, the Sunlight Foundation, Dec. 6, 2011
InfluenceExplorer.com, accessed Dec. 9, 2011

Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, accessed Dec. 2 & 9, 2011

Administration makes progress on contractor database

Increasing government transparency was a big part of President Obama's platform on the campaign trail. He pledged to allow five days of public comment before signing bills, make White House communications public, and conduct regulatory agency business in public.

He also promised to create a "contracts and influence" database that would disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, what contracts they receive and how well they complete them. In December 2009, we rated that promise In the Works. We wanted to see if there's been any movement on this promise since then.

We spoke with Craig Holman, the legislative representative for Public Citizen, a public interest group. Holman told us that the Obama administration has been working behind the scenes on contractor databases.

In April 2010, the administration concluded the consolidation and integration process for many of its previously-disconnected contractor databases, Holman said. This information is currently available for contractor procurement officers via the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS). The system was created following the passage of the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act of 2009, which called for the creation of a database to monitor the performance of federal contractors.

The database says whether the contractor finished the project on time and followed the budget and includes details of any civil violations in the last five years and suspensions, among other information, Holman said.

The system is not accessible to the public and does not currently contain information on contractor lobbying expenditures. Still, Holman told us that if the system data became publicly available, it would be easy for government watchdog groups to cross-link that data with existing databases that track lobbying expenditures.

We should mention that there is a bill pending in the Senate that would make several changes to the current system. It would require a review of how the system data is being used by the Inspectors General, improve contractor identification systems, and require further integration of existing databases. There is also proposed legislation that calls on the General Services Administration (GSA) to make selected FAPIIS system data available to the public, according to the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.

President Obama has not officially endorsed current legislative proposals that would make the data public, but Holman said that the proposal "is consistent with his transparency program," so he expects the administration to adopt "such a policy soon." Scott Amey, the general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, is a bit more critical. He says that the "administration is moving slowly" on making the data public and gives more credit to Congress. Either way, there is a clear effort from at least some quarters to make the data publicly available.

Finally, on June 18, 2010, the White House released a memorandum calling on the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to provide the President "a plan for completing integration for the remaining [FAPISS] databases, to the extent permitted by law, so that agencies can access them through a single entry point."

President Obama promised to develop a comprehensive database with information on how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them. The administration has been working steadily over the past several months to integrate at least nine contractor databases that were previously disconnected. The new system includes many of the specific details that President Obama discussed on the campaign trail. Obama has also asked for a plan on how to integrate the remaining databases, and has issued a memorandum directing agencies to be more vigilant about whom they give money to. There is still much room for improvement, though. The database is currently not public and does not include lobbying expenditures, both features which Obama promised the system would have. We'll be watching this one closely, but for now, it remains In the Works.

Sources:

E-mail Interview, Craig Holman, Public Citizen, July 8, 2010

E-mail interview, Scott Amey, Project on Government Oversight, 19, 2010

E-mail Interview, Jim Harper, CATO Institute, July 8, 2010

Project on Government Oversight, POGO Submits FOIA Request for Records Contained in New Government Contractor Performance Database, by Bryan Rahija, April 21, 2010

Project on Government Oversight, Senate Considers Improvements to FAPIIS, by Scott Amey, May 12, 2010

Project on Government Oversight, Contracts -- Somebody Might Be Watching You, Scott Amey, Feb. 19, 2010

Project on Government Oversight, Bipartisan Coalition Urges Congress to Preserve Provision to Make FAPIIS Public, June 11, 2010

Sunlight Foundation, New Gov't Contractor Integrity Database Will Be Off-Limits to Public, by Claritza Jimenez, April 5, 2010

Department of Defense and Naval Sea Logistics Center, FAPIIS index page, accessed July 8, 2010

The White House, Presidential Memorandum--Enhancing Payment Accuracy Through a "Do Not Pay List", June 18, 2010











 

Administration ups contracting disclosure, but specific database promised isn't a reality yet

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to create a "contracts and influence" database that would "disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them."
 
No such database exists yet, but the administration has spent considerable effort on increasing transparency on government contracts -- something that could be the basis for such a database in the future.
 
On Jan. 21, 2009 -- one day after he was inaugurated -- Obama issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, instructing the director of the Office of Management and Budget to issue an Open Government Directive. On Dec. 8, 2009, the OMB issued the directive. In it, the OMB said that "each agency shall take prompt steps to expand access to information by making it available online in open formats," adding that "the presumption shall be in favor of openness (to the extent permitted by law and subject to valid privacy, confidentiality, security, or other restrictions)." It sets timetables for providing data to the public, with the first coming just 45 days after issuance.
 
Transparency advocates say that several initiatives hold promise as models, though none is perfect and none adheres strictly to Obama's promise on a "contracts and influence" database. For instance, the Web site recovery.gov tracks where stimulus money is being spent, and usaspending.gov tracks a broader array of federal expenditures. It would be technically feasible to link such data with lobbying expenditure disclosures, experts say.
 
Despite problems such as unreliable data and redacted information, recovery.gov represents "the first time an administration has posted such information on the Internet as a routine program," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen. He added that he sees the release of the OMB memorandum as further evidence that the administration is making an effort on transparency.
 
So, while the specific database Obama promised does not exist yet, the administration is making headway. That's enough for us to rate the promise as In the Works.

Sources:

Office of Management and Budget, " Open Government Directive ," Dec. 8, 2009
 
The White House, " Open Government: A Progress Report to the American People ," December 2009
 
recovery.gov, home page , accessed Dec. 11, 2009

usaspending.gov, home page , accessed Dec. 11, 2009

E-mail interview with Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, Dec. 10, 2009
 
E-mail interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies, Cato Institute, Dec. 10, 2009