THE BLOG
10/09/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

3 Simple Questions to Ask Your Elected Official About How They Spend Your Tax Dollars

It's election season, and many candidates are on a "listening campaign" and kissing babies all over in the run-up to voting day in November (and let's not forget early voting). Although not a "sexy" topic, and although the operations of a procurement department may not be a hot talking point during in a follow-up to a stump speech, how your school district, local government or state agencies operate reflects the policies of the politicians who were elected to run those agencies. My colleague Erica Harrison and I have worked with federal, state and local government agencies, and the sophistication and transparency vary widely among and within all levels of government. Whether the agencies are open and transparent, or secretive and closed, goes a long way in showing whether you elected someone representing the people or special interests.

Procurement departments are responsible for seeking out, selecting and purchasing large quantities of goods and services for public consumption. Companies of various sizes submit bids on public contract opportunities by offering competitive prices, unique qualities or innovative approaches to meeting a department's needs. The estimated values of these procurements (e.g., fiber optic equipment, teacher professional development and student textbooks, restaurants in government buildings) can range from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars and are likely procured through some public proposal process--a process that, obviously, requires taxpayer dollars to administer and could put taxpayer dollars at risk if not done properly. The best procurement departments have protocols for public contracting to ensure that businesses offering their goods or services can find opportunities, fully participate in the request for proposal processes and be heard in cases of dispute. Here is a short and high-level accountability checklist to arm you with questions to see if your local or state procurement departments are high-functioning and poised to make the most of taxpayer dollars.

• Is information about the procurement department easily accessible?

With not much effort, the name, business address and contact information for the chief procurement officer and any person responsible for public requests for information, along with the policies and laws that authorize and guide the department, should be at your fingertips after a quick web search. Some localities may name their departments "purchasing" or "contracts" divisions. Some departments may fall under the authority of the general municipal or state purchasing office. Regardless of name or structure, if you have trouble finding any of this preliminary information, red flags should go up and questions should go out to public officials.

• Is information about current or past requests for proposals and contracts available online?

While every state has "open records" laws allowing you to request contract opportunities, awards and contracts, some are closer to the vest than others. Transparency is best reflected by free access to this information online. In some cases, departments may provide this information but for security purposes require internet users to register with the domain before providing it. In other cases, this information may be in the meeting notes from a previous board meeting of the officials charged to approve the procurement awards. Viewing past procurements may provide a framework for or deeper understanding of what the recurring needs may be for a given population. Forward-looking businesses can also use this information to market future goods and services.

• Is the procurement process fair?

Here is where the rubber meets the road. A fair procurement process involves clear, equally applied rules with proper notice and unbiased communications, predictable timelines, reasons for selecting bid winners and not selecting other bidders, and a forum for bid losers to protest and get final answers within a reasonable period. In some instances, procurement departments have discretion to award bids based on select criteria as long as the evaluations are in accordance with the rules. In other instances, procurement departments must award bids to the lowest bidder. A bidder's recourse varies according to the governing laws, and while protests of bids are normal (and should probably be expected), sustained media frenzies surrounding procurements may signal that official review of the entire procurement is necessary. Every bidder cannot win every time, but taxpayers should expect a fair, transparent procurement department that is capable of procuring the best goods and services with what funds it has.

Asking these three questions should tell you how much your elected official works for you.