As a candidate, Barack Obama said he would "create transparency for military contractors,” which was part of a larger agenda to reform defense contracting.
Although Obama made a general statement that he would "create transparency and accountability needed for good governance,” he didn't specify how.
Instead, he talked about getting the Pentagon and State Department to write a policy clarifying how they decide to outsource work to private contractors, as opposed to doing it in-house. Obama also mentioned establishing the legal status of military contract employees, especially in foreign countries, so that if those employees commit abuses, the government is able to prosecute them.
We'll address these two specific reform promises before we address general transparency improvements.
In March 2009, the White House sent a memo to all federal agency heads, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget, to create a process for identifying "contracts that are wasteful, inefficient, or not otherwise likely to meet the agency's needs, and to formulate appropriate corrective action in a timely manner.” The memo also directs the Office of Management and Budget to "clarify when governmental outsourcing for services is and is not appropriate.” In September 2011, the agency followed through with a policy letter that outlines a strategy for determining when contracting makes sense.
The second promise about legal status of contract employees, remains unresolved.
A Senate subcommittee hearing on contract oversight in April 2012, a Pentagon official acknowledged more work needed to be done.
"We agree in broad terms that the Department of Defense needs to have remedies available to handle contractors who may not be subject to U.S. law,” said the Richard Ginman, director of defense procurement and acquisition policy at the Pentagon. "We would like to work with the Congress to develop an effective approach to ensuring contractors can be held accountable.”
So, Obama appears to be batting .500 on this military contracting promise, but since the title of the promise and some of the general language mentions transparency and accountability, we decided to look into this as well. We asked two open-government experts who follow military contracting. Neither thought Obama had really made military contracting more "transparent and accountable.”
Laura Peterson, a senior policy analyst for Taxpayers for Common Sense, said "no major new transparency initiatives have been introduced.” For an incremental reform on transparency, Peterson referred us to USASpending.gov, which provides information on basic information about contract recipients and total money awarded to that contractor. The White House under Obama relaunched the website and added subcontractors to that database.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said USASpending.gov doesn't go far enough. For instance, it doesn't list the number of employees, the number of hours worked, or even a breakdown of costs, such as overhead and administrative costs.
"That type of analysis is impossible for us to do on the outside,” Amey said.
Peterson also mentioned ForeignAssistance.gov, which allows the public "to examine, research, and track U.S. Government foreign assistance investments in an accessible and easy-to-understand format.” So far, the website includes budget plans, money obligated and money spent by USAID and the Millenium Challenge Corporation.
With USAID, for instance, you can see that the agency spent about $22.9 million on counterterrorism and $9.1 million on combating weapons of mass destruction in 2011, with a breakdown of that spending by country.
With the State Department, you can see next year's budget plan, but no other details. That's a far cry from the 20 or so agencies the website says will one day be included in its foreign assistance database. Even if that information comes in the future, there wouldn't be details of which defense contractors receive that foreign aid money.
Overall, we find Obama made some progress setting up a policy for when to contract government work. Meanwhile, military contracting is a little more transparent than before, but not much. We rate this a Compromise.