Government withholds details on contract to redesign

Observers say the government should be more forthcoming about the award process and how taxpayers' money will be spent.

The redesign of the official stimulus-tracking site so far has produced more secrecy than transparency, according to some project management specialists and open government advocates.

Observers criticized the General Services Administration, which on Wednesday announced it had awarded Hollywood, Md.-based Web services provider Smartronix a contract to upgrade the site, for failing to provide more information about the deal. The announcement included the name of the company, the value of the contract and two quotes from government officials about the forthcoming site's ability to let "taxpayers see where their dollars are being spent."

The makeover will cost taxpayers $9.5 million through January 2010 and as much as $18 million if all options are exercised until January 2014, GSA said. But it did not disclose what those dollars are being spent on or how many other companies competed for the award. Wednesday's release only noted that 59 companies were eligible to bid. As announced in a June 11 presolicitation notice, the contract was restricted to 59 firms that participate in a governmentwide information technology contract program called Alliant.

Paul Brubaker, former administrator of the Transportation Department's Research and Innovative Technology Administration and now senior director with Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group, said Alliant, which is intended to speed federal purchasing by supplying agencies with a list of prequalified contractors, might have hindered innovation and openness in the case of the award. Alliant contractors must vet and choose their own subcontractors, if they feel they lack certain skills or staff.

This IT award "raises this whole question ... 'Is this the best process that we can use at this time?' " said Brubaker, who helped draft the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, the most recent overhaul of IT contracting practices. "The prime [contractors] are essentially acting as gatekeepers to talent [that can help in] addressing the government's most critical problems. I don't understand why we can't open this up a little."

Some observers noted that award-winning Web developers for information delivery sites such as The New York Times are not on Alliant and thus could not propose a solution.

"We've become so prescriptive to get the taxpayer the best deal on the dollar," Brubaker said. "We've really got to take a step back and look at this to see if there is a way to do this that is transparent and allows the best and the brightest to bid as opposed to this artificial gatekeeping."

Open government groups, some of which have asked for contract details through the Freedom of Information Act, say they are frustrated taxpayers cannot see more about how the money will be spent.

"The problem is we haven't seen the contract," said Jerry Brito, co-creator of the unofficial recovery-tracking site, and a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center who specializes in government transparency. "I've e-mailed the contract officers at GSA and have not heard back from them. We don't know what we're paying $9.5 million for. ... What is thing going to do? Is it going to make fries? Until we see the contract, you can't judge."

GSA spokesman Robert Lesino on Friday said the agency is restricted from providing details, including the names of the other bidders and copies of proposals, due to "procurement sensitivity and acquisition regulation."

Lesino pointed out that the June pre-solicitation notice was posted on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site. "In order to expedite the award of the contract, the previously competed Alliant governmentwide acquisition contract was used," he said.

Transparency advocates noted that neither GSA nor the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which maintains, posted the request for proposals on or Nextgov obtained the document from a GSA spokeswoman, shortly after the government issued it to Alliant contractors.

Making available the contract and the number of bids submitted is not the job of the board, said spokesman Ed Pound, adding that GSA handles the public release of contract information.