Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Every Day, New Levels of Secrecy

The always-sharp Nick Confessore pointed me towards the latest refinement in the Bush Administration's campaign to restrict public access to information. This time, the target is awards to federal contractors, and the method is outsourcing:
Established by an act of Congress in 1979, the Federal Procurement Data System was a rare island of public information, the only complete record of federal contracts. Using the database, journalists, auditors and federal investigators could review the million or so agreements with corporations Uncle Sam signed each year. They could find the companies reaping the largest awards, track the rise in no-bid deals, and measure the recent drive to replace federal employees with corporate employees. But under a new contract, the General Services Administration has now turned over responsibility for collecting and distributing information on government contracts to a beltway company called Global Computer Enterprises, Inc.

In signing the $24 million deal, the Bush Administration has privatized not only the collection and distribution of the data, but the database itself. For the first time since the system was established, the information will not be available directly to the public or subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to federal officials. "It's a contractor owned and operated system," explains Nancy Gunsauls, a project manager at GCE. "We have the data."
GCE is required to produce reports for the government, and to allow "limited access" to the database for fees set at "market price" - which, given that they hold a total monopoly, apparently translates as "however much we want to charge." They also appear to be able to set their screening process for access - for example, requiring a Mother Jones magazine reporter to first schedule a one-on-one meeting with company officials ("We like to meet with folks and find out how they are using the data") at the company's leisure.

Reporters or community organizations trying to track federal contracts will now have to approach each of the hundreds of federal offices and agencies individually, filing separate Freedom of Information Act requests, unless they want to pay GCE's price - quoted by one potential user as $35,000 - for whatever limited information GCE wants to release. In the meantime, GCE will be able to collect piles of money from wealthy Beltway Bandits who want to check up on their competitors.

Privatization of governmental functions isn't just a matter of enriching contractors, shrinking the federal government, eliminating federal workers' employment protections, and allowing the government to distance itself from suspect actions - although all of those things are bad enough. Privatization of governmental functions strikes at the heart of democracy by eliminating public oversight of government. We can't hold our government accountable if information about its actions is considered to be proprietary data, owned by a private corporation rather than by the American people.