Tag Archives: disclosure

A Lesson From Canada

I frequently post about the problems with “contracting out” by units of government–a process often misnamed “privatization.” (Contracting has also been a focus of my academic research, and my scholarly articles addressing privatization are archived on this blog under “Academic Articles.”)

The bottom line is that sometimes contracting makes sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. But even in situations where contracting is appropriate, the practice raises significant management issues that deserve attention. The “how” is every bit as important as “whether” and “when.”

So I was interested to see that Canada’s Project on Government Oversight recently issued a National Action Plan for Contracting Reform–a proposal that sets out 8 steps intended to “improve government contractor transparency and promote responsible contracting.”

Those steps–which I wholeheartedly endorse–are:

• An improved Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) database.
• Publicly Release Contracting Documents
• Post Contractor Past Performance Reviews on FAPIIS
• Publicly Release the DoD Revolving Door Database
• Publicly Disclose Contractor Political Spending
• Publish an Annual Report on Defense Contracting Fraud
• A requirement for the government to inform FOIA requesters that specific contractor information has been withheld or redacted
• Ending Dun & Bradstreet’s control over how the government uses DUNS data

All of these steps are warranted, but the disclosure of prior performance reviews may be the most important. Units of American government preparing to enter into contracts to deliver services through private providers need to take a page from our neighbor to the north, and require those bidding on government contracts to document their prior performance.

Performance information is especially important when the contracts involve children. In Florida, to its credit, Palm Beach County recently tightened its rules on charter schools by requiring charter school applicants “to disclose any prior history with failed schools and prove they offer innovative programs.”

The underlying premise of government contracting is that the private sector can perform a given service or function more efficiently at the same or lower cost than government. It seems only reasonable to require solid evidence that the contractor can actually do so.

Something Different, Continued

Yesterday’s post on the pros and cons of labeling foods with genetically-altered ingredients led to a back-and-forth discussion that exemplifies the real-world problems of policymaking, where matters are seldom black and white.

The discussion illustrated a contemporary reality: given the increasing complexity of the world we inhabit, in many policy domains, few people will fully understand the issues involved. Think climate change, poverty, education, healthcare…and food labeling.

Miriam’s comment raised many of the potential pitfalls involved in labeling; as she noted, in an effort to give people relevant information, we may instead end up misinforming them. In particular, her question “how far do we drill down?” is key. How much information is enough, and how much is too much? How are we defining our terms? What do we include/exclude?

Mort underscores the economic motives of the stakeholders in this particular debate, reminding us of the increasing role that money and influence play in our policymaking, often to the detriment of accuracy and the public good. (The climate change debate is an example.)

What do consumers have a right to know about the products they purchase? What do they need to know?

On the one hand, the vendor/manufacturers’ “trust us” is not only insufficient, it is contrary to the premises of our regulatory structure. On the other hand, both Miriam and Mort are undeniably correct  when they point out that most consumers do not have the background and scientific training needed to evaluate technical information accurately and will either over-react to it or ignore it.

Most of us shake our heads or laugh when the stewardess demonstrates how to buckle a seat belt, or when we read the label on a ladder that warns us against falling off.

We don’t need a nanny state that overprotects us. We do need relevant information that allows us to make informed choices. Deciding where to draw that line–deciding what information should be conveyed–is the hard part.

Yesterday’s exchange reminded me of the old story of the village rabbi who is approached by two men to settle an argument. The first tells his side, and the Rabbi says, “you’re right.” The second tells his side, and once again the Rabbi says, “You’re right.” An onlooker protests: they can’t both be right! To which the Rabbi says, “You, too, are right!”

Policy is complicated. Simple answers and binary choices don’t make for good policy.

Maybe that’s one reason we don’t have much good policy these days.

A Step in the Right Direction

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United should have been a wake-up call for those of us who have been concerned over the growing power of corporate America. Corporations have their place–by shielding entrepreneurs from personal liability, they encourage risk-taking and innovation; I have no problem with the corporate form as a useful business mechanism. (Although I do find it ironic that the growth in corporate hegemony tends to be applauded by people who talk a lot about the need for poor people to exercise “personal responsibility.” Corporations were invented to allow people to escape personal responsibility.)

The problem isn’t with the existence of corporate entities, the problem is with confusing these artificial constructs with human beings, and awarding them rights. There’s a reason we call our individual liberties “human rights.” When the Supreme Court essentially ruled that corporations and labor unions could give unlimited amounts to political candidates and causes, and justified that ruling as “free speech,” most observers–certainly this one–considered the decision both ill-considered and extremely dangerous. When the Senate refused to pass a measure requiring disclosure of such contributions, the floodgates seemed permanently open. We are going to see unprecedented sums spent by the 1% to influence the 2012 elections, and distort the electoral process.

The influence of money on our government has been well documented, and the picture isn’t pretty, but I was heartened to see President Obama taking at least a small step toward limiting the wholesale purchase of policy.

It has been reported that the President is drafting an executive order that would require companies pursuing federal contracts to disclose political contributions that have been secret under the Citizen’s United ruling. Despite howls from the usual suspects, this is a modest “good government” measure that does not violate anyone’s free speech rights. If a company wants to do business with government, and receive payment from our tax dollars, we the people have a right to know whether that business has been contributing to lawmakers and/or government officials who will influence those contracting decisions.

It’s not enough–we need to reign in the increasingly common use of obscene amounts of corporate money to gain political advantage. But it’s a start.