By DANA LIEBELSON
Here in the District, spring is in the air! Rock Creek Park is abloom, the tourists are out on the Mall, there are mile-long lines to the food trucks, and the sun is shining. At POGO, when we see sunshine, we can't help but consider one of our favorite issues: government transparency. Unfortunately, there's some important government information that’s still sitting in the dark.
We’ve put together a list of seven types of information generated by the executive branch that could benefit from a little springtime sunshine—and should be made public ASAP. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s representative of the kinds of data, documents, records, and other information that we’d like to see prioritized in the President’s open government effort. To learn more, be sure to check out the openness floor.
1. Robust Contracting Data
Given the fact that POGO’s Bad Business report found that service contractors cost taxpayers almost twice as much as federal employees to perform comparable services, the public deserves more transparency in government contracting. According to POGO General Counsel Scott Amey, who coauthored the report, “all paperwork produced during the contracting process, including contracts, task and delivery orders, price and cost information, proposals, solicitations, award decisions and justifications, audits, and performance and responsibility data should be posted on a public website.”
2. Performance Reports on the Contractors Managing the Sprawling Nuclear Weapons Complex
The Department of Energy spends a whopping 90 percent of its budget on contractors, and much of that goes to contractors managing the nuclear weapons complex—a task overseen by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Unfortunately for taxpayers, the NNSA decided in October 2009 to withhold key reports on contractor performance—Performance Evaluation Plans (PEPs) and Performance Evaluation Reports (PERs)—from the public until three years after their completion. As POGO wrote to President Obama, PEPs and PERs are “perhaps the single most important information available to hold NNSA accountable. These evaluations assess the performance of the contractors who manage the laboratories and production facilities that comprise the national weapons complex. Additionally, this information demonstrates how effectively the government uses the power of the purse to hold the contractors accountable for their performance.”
3. Government-Wide Revolving Door Information
All you have to do is check out POGO’s “Un-Do Influence” Campaign to see how pervasive conflicts of interest and the revolving door are in U.S. government. According to POGO’s Politics of Contracting report, the revolving door “costs taxpayers, limits or eliminates competition from businesses that may be the best for the job, and results in flawed policies and bad procurement decisions.” The Department of Defense (DoD) collects information about officials who waltz through the revolving door from the Pentagon into the private sector, but it’s not public. The DoD and all other government agencies should make this information public. (Check out POGO’s SEC Revolving Door Database and accompanying report for more info on this topic.)
4. Progress Reports for Major Weapons Programs
Congress receives reports called Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs) on major weapons programs from the Department of Defense Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Unfortunately, most taxpayers never get to see them. According to POGO Investigator Ben Freeman, “these reports don't contain classified information, but they do provide information taxpayers can use to determine if contractors are delivering the weapons capabilities we need at prices we can afford.” The public has a right to know if it's overpaying for under-performing weapons. The reports should be released to the public when the DoD sends them to Congress.
5. Investigations into Prosecutorial Misconduct at the Justice Department
This Office of Professional Responsibility, one of the Justice Department’s internal watchdogs, is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct among DOJ prosecutors and other DOJ attorneys. Unfortunately, OPR does not release its investigations to the public. Given that this information definitely falls within the public interest, OPR should make reports publicly available online when it substantiates instances of prosecutorial misconduct.
6. Executive Branch Interpretations of Laws
The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), which offers legal advice to the president and executive branch agencies, makes some of its memos interpreting law available to the public. But other important national security memos are still classified, even when they clearly serve the public interest. The OLC didn’t make its torture memos available to the public until legal battles and public pressure forced it to do so. Additionally, the memos providing justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and the memo detailing U.S. surveillance laws have yet to be released (although we’re working on it). Secret law that governs the government, but is not viewable by the public, is damaging to government transparency. The Anwar al-Awlaki and surveillance memos should be made public without delay.
7. Campaign Contributions of Government Contractors
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United ushered in a new age of unlimited spending on elections by corporations—and much of the spending can be done in the dark—even spending by contractors who make their profits from taxpayer dollars. A draft executive order by President Obama revealed last year would help address this problem by requiring full disclosure of campaign spending and contributions by businesses that seek federal government contracts. Plenty of states already have this requirement—it’s time for the federal level to catch up. POGO and more than 25 good government groups from across the ideological spectrum supported this executive order, but it has yet to be issued. It’s time for the President to shine a light on contractor spending.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Image via Flickr user Scottwdw.