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Find Out What You're Buying

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BARACK OBAMA
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The issue of government procurement is one that may not rouse the public into mass outrage such as much other pressing political and social problems -- but continue reading and perhaps it will rouse you intellectually.

It is no secret that the U.S. government is a very big spender. Much like its citizens, the government regularly buys products such as vehicles, appliances, furniture, fuel, clothing, cleaning supplies, pharmaceuticals and much more. Government procurement is used to purchase telephone and Internet services, other utilities, health insurance services and more. Government-sponsored research and development has led to advancements in aviation, medicine, electronics, and even the development of the Internet. The U.S. federal government is one of the world's biggest consumers. These hundreds of billions of dollars in purchases and investments are a driving force of the American economy -- procurement creates jobs, promotes innovation and even has socially beneficial effects. It also is often associated with outsourcing waste and fraud and crony capitalism.

It took a federal procurement of automobiles with driver-side airbags in 1985 for the use of government employees to press the big auto manufacturers to finally acknowledge the life-saving protection of airbags. And we owe the civilian market for cheaper, generic drugs to purchases first pioneered by the U.S. Army.

The other side of government spending, however, is the waste, fraud and abuse that occur without proper comprehensive oversight. A perfect example is the troubled F-35 joint strike fighter program which has lifetime cost estimates of over $1 trillion and is rife with technical problems. (The test F-35 fleet is currently grounded after one caught on fire on the runway last month.)

One example of comprehensive oversight that we have long fought for is free access to the full text of government contracts online. It only makes sense -- shouldn't taxpayers have the right to see how their dollars are being spent? Comprehensive oversight is only possible when information is available to the public eye. Such access would inevitably encourage fiscal responsibility and hinder corruption. The Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act, which was signed into law earlier this year by President Obama, will address some of the challenges in documenting government spending, although it does not mandate the full text of contracts online. Considering the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses that are awarded to corporations each year, much work is left to be done in adequately informing the public of how their dollars are spent.

One promising development recently came from the U.S. Navy.

Last month, The Washington Post reported that the Navy, in a small news conference, publicly announced a ranking of the best contractors that they do business with. The top 30 contractors, broken into individual work units within their larger corporations, were separated into three tiers based on their performance. (Notably, only the top nine were shared with reporters at the briefing. See the full list here.)

To my knowledge, this is the first time that any federal agency has done such a public ranking. But it should not be the last, given the massive amount of taxpayer dollars for government purchases and outsourcing every year.

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics said at the media briefing that the Navy's method of ranking and categorizing its contractors would be expanding to the Army and Air Force, as well.

This pioneering method could serve as a modest template for other government departments and agencies. A publicly visible ranking system with publicly explicit standards promotes competition and keeps corporations accountable for the services they are paid to provide. And making the public keenly aware of the quality of the contractors the government chooses to hire is a critical first step in taxpayers seeing a better return for their spent dollars. It's an issue that both the left and right can and should align on -- who besides the corporatists, with their hand in the cookie jar, would oppose spending taxpayer dollars wisely?

Just this week I wrote a letter to the heads of many of the government's top contracting departments and agencies inquiring into whether their agency would follow the Navy's lead and consider doing their own ranking of contractors and the criteria used. Perhaps an inter-agency conference between departments would significantly increase accountability and efficiency in government spending. Where is the roar of the people?