The Challenge5501 followers
Making Government Contract Spending LocalFederal contracts affect nearly every community in the nation but local media lack the tools and expertise to report on them. Our database will change that.
Federal contracts affect nearly every community in the nation. They account for roughly one-fifth of all federal government spending. Take Washington D.C. and military communities out of the equation and that percentage jumps much higher.
Among other things, federal contracts build and repair public infrastructure, finance critical research and staff veterans’ hospitals.
But news reporting on federal contracts outside of Washington is nearly non-existent. Why? Because federal contract information, while officially open, is incredibly opaque. Accessing and making sense of it requires a commitment of time and resources that few local newspapers, TV stations and other watchdogs are capable of making.
The result is most citizens are barely aware of how government contract spending affects their communities, their services and their daily lives. And the vast majority of government contracts, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars annually, are rarely tracked by anyone outside the government and contracting community.
Nextgov can help. We know federal contracts and we know the digital systems that display them. We also know good local news because many of us spent years reporting it.
We propose to build a system that channels the mass of information about federal contract solicitations, contract awards and contract disputes into something local reporters, bloggers and concerned citizens can use as a launching pad for solid, informative coverage.
The backend of our system will be built on scraping daily updates from FBO.gov, the central repository for government contracting opportunities and awards, and from the Comptroller General’s website, the central repository for all information about contract disputes. We’ll retain this information for one year on a rolling basis and in a searchable, sortable and exportable form.
We envision our site having three major components. The first will be the main database webpage, which will allow journalists and other watchdogs to sort through local contract solicitations, awards and disputes using parameters that make sense to them. This will include sorting by the place of performance of the contract down to the county level, the location of the contactor, the dollar value of the contract and the sponsoring federal agency.
The second component will be a system that allows reporters and editors to set up email alerts tailored to their beats and communities. A farm reporter, for instance, could set alerts for all Agriculture Department contracts and contract disputes in his state. An editor with a number of military contractors in her region could choose to be alerted about local contracts awarded by defense agencies or to particular companies she’s following. If she’s only interested in major contracts, she could limit her alerts to contracts that exceed $1 million.
By distributing most of our information through self-tailored email alerts we’ll lower the time investment for local reporters and other watchdogs to a manageable level while still significantly increasing local contract reporting. FBO.gov only offers email alerts for people who have gone through the arduous process of obtaining a government identification code and doesn’t allow recipients to tailor their searches in ways that would aid local reporters such as searching on a county or regional level. It is possible to receive contract disputes by email from the Comptroller General’s Office but not to tailor the list at all.
The third portion of our system will be a blog and discussion board describing best practices for local contract reporting and highlighting interesting and innovative stories produced at the local level.
There are already several useful tools to examine the effect of contract spending on the level of a state or congressional district, most notably the Center for Effective Government’s FedSpending.org, which was the inspiration for the U.S. government’s own USASpending.gov.
These tools all focus on data that’s at least six months old, however. That means they’re useful for a deep dive story on contracts’ local effects but can’t increase oversight of contracts either before they’re awarded or during the earliest stages of work.
Our system would give journalists and other watchdogs the opportunity to report on contracts before they’re set in stone.
- Spot suspicious contract solicitations and awards that warrant further investigation.
- Investigate contracts related to natural disasters and other major events that unfold quickly.
- Track contract disputes involving local companies.
We also would integrate our site as seamlessly as possible with Fedspending.org and other sites that oversee federal contract spending. This means the site could serve as a jumping off point for deeper investigations. Users could:
Examine how federal priorities, such as infrastructure renewal and investments in basic research and development, are -- or aren’t -- being realized at the local level.
- Compare contract spending in one city, county or congressional district with what’s spent in another.
- Explore changes in contract funding levels as local congressional delegations change or as the city or county hires Washington lobbyists.
- Monitor government contracts awarded to local companies.
- Track spending on particular services, projects or buildings over time.
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How did you hear about the contest?
- Knight Foundation website