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Making Government Contract Spending Local

Federal 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.

The Problem:

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.

Our Proposal:

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.

What’s New

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.

They could:

- 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.

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

We will build a sortable, searchable and up-to-date database of information about federal contracts -- solicitations, awards and disputes -- that local media can use to report on how federal spending affects their communities and access through tailored email alerts.

Where are you located?

Washington, DC

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. Knight Foundation website
Joseph's profile photo
entry submitted by: Joseph Marks
February 21, 2013, 05:14PM
1132 views 15 comments 10 applause Applaud

Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

February 23, 2013, 12:03PM
I think this is a great idea. As someone who has used Recovery.gov and USASpending.gov pretty extensively, I've always found the systems to be maddening. Whether it's their terrible boolean searches, or what I like to refer to as their "Rabbit holes" someone has to explore in order to find relevant information, something needs to be improved.

Would you try to integrate state spending data ? For instance, Texas has a really great tool (they have very clear options), but the data appears to be siloed in it: http://www.texastransparency.org/moneygoes/

Also, a lot of the Stimulus money, and other federal money, is given to states in block grants -- then they proceed to spend the federal money on all kinds of inappropriate stuff. Would you be able to more effectively track that federal money and where it goes once it hits state and local governments?

Finally, what other databases would you hook into the contracting data? Two big ones that I think are essential for any sort of contracting research are campaign finance databases and personal financial disclosure databases. I think both can be found through OpenSecrets.org., or Legistorm. When analyzing personal financial disclosures, many federal elected officials invest in federal contractors -- and the timing of sales and purchases is oftentimes suspicious based on the timing of contracts. How will your contract database help to connect some of those dots, specifically with the timing of contracts? For instance, if X contractor is awarded a federal contract, how could you quickly see if employees of that contractor made any campaign contributions in the months leading up to or after the contract was awarded? The contributions would come from the executives of the contractor, so the literal name of the contractor may not be listed on the campaign contribution forms unless they were listed as the employer. Would your system be able to scrape websites of contractors to get key personell data?

Anyway, looking forward to seeing how this develops! Good luck.

-Zach
Becky Sweger's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 24, 2013, 10:35PM
Hi Zach,

Saw your comments re: USASpending.gov frustrations and just wanted to spread the word about a Google Group that emerged from a federal spending data session at the Sunlight Foundation's 2012 Transparency Camp: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups#!myforums

I'd love to see this community grow. Since USASpending doesn't provide much in the way of user support, it's really helpful to be connected to other consumers of this data.
Becky Sweger's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 24, 2013, 10:39PM
Aaaand, got the link wrong. The Open Federal Spending Data group is: https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!forum/open-federal-spending-data
Zach Edwards's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 24, 2013, 11:00PM
Thanks, Becky! Just joined up. Looking forward to future discussions about the spending data.

Cheers,
Zach
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 25, 2013, 12:55PM
Hi Zach,

Thanks for the detailed feedback. There's a lot of good stuff there that we'll work in as we update the proposal.

Re. state-level spending data and block grants, we're wary of trying to do too much and not doing it all well. Someone should definitely look at how federal block grants are divvied up at the state level and create a national database, but I think that's beyond the scope of what we can manage in a database focused on federal contracting money.

Linking to contractors' financial disclosures and campaign finance info. is a great idea, especially as most of that information is already being aggregated very well by Open Secrets, Sunlight and others and we could link directly to it. We'll include this as we update.

Thanks again.

Joe
Zach Edwards's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 25, 2013, 01:54PM
Thanks, Joe, glad that was helpful.

I see the federal data google group that Becky flagged, but do you know if there are any open data groups focused on building a centralized database/API for contract data in all 50 states? I suspect some states already have open data, and others may be making the transition.

At some point of your research and planning stage, I could see a value in methodically trying to find open contract data for all 50 states -- and first see if someone has already done that research. Then you may be able to integrate SOME state level data into your platform while also raising red flags about states that have data in closed systems or totally non-public systems. Essentially use the platform as a driving engine to connect contracting data in a useable format from the federal to the local level. Because it's more than just providing a tool, you can be a platform for promoting open data and government improvements. Maybe that process takes 5 years, but planning for it's eventuality may reduce some headaches in the future.

I look forward to seeing how this develops!

-Zach
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 25, 2013, 01:58PM
Thanks Zach.

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. We can definitely do that and, where possible, piggyback on cases where the work's already done.
Kaitlin Devine's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
March 12, 2013, 12:25PM
There is a post in the google group that Becky mentioned that has some state expenditure data collected here: http://datahub.io/group/us-state-spending-and-revenue-data

You can access it via the datahub api or just download csvs. That might be a good place to start if you wanted to do a pilot on including state level contracts.

Have you thought about building an API into your product so local spending projects can use your data? I was looking at West Virginia's contract portal the other day and it seemed like a lot of their federal money that they ended up contracting out was not in there. I don't think it's uncommon for states to build their spending portals to only show the contracts coming out of the state funds, and not the federal grant/contracting money. If your data was readily available it would allow local groups to import it and combine it with their own.
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
March 15, 2013, 08:08AM
Hi All,

Just a note to let you know we've updated the entry to focus more narrowly on contracts and contract disputes during their first year online when they generally aren't being captured by existing open data sources such as Fedspending.org. We've also updated the interface to focus more heavily on self-tailored email alerts. This will limit the time commitment for local watchdogs to a manageable level while raising local scrutiny of federal contracts.

Thanks for checking our entry out.

Joe
February 24, 2013, 11:55PM
This is definitely a worthwhile idea.

Could you give a sense of the current state of the art in spending websites / search systems and talk about what your site will do to go past that? I am not super-knowledgable about federal spending and how it is currently published. Does your system work within the existing method of publication of this info or would it require it to be in some separate format? How will you account for the fact that lots of spending is felt in fractions that may not be discernible (i.e. one contract is split among 4 factories of a single company).

In short, this sounds like a really hard problem. Would ove to hear more!
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 25, 2013, 06:27PM
Hi Daniel,

Thanks for your encouragement.

New information about federal contract opportunities, awards and disputes is split between FBO.gov and the Comptroller General’s website. There’s historical information about contracts from specific agencies and to specific vendors at USASpending.gov. None of the sites is easy to navigate and I’ve never met a local reporter who uses them, though I’m sure there are a handful at major metro dailies.

Our goal is to basically scrape data from these sites to build a tool local reporters without deep database expertise could use to spot and analyze contract activity in their communities. At its most basic level this would mean watchdogging the contracts no one else is looking at. (E.g. why is the local Indian Health Service hospital offering a short term contract for sexual trauma therapists? True story. I happened across the contract and sent it to a friend who’s an editor in the area). On a larger scale, our tool would allow reporters to analyze trends in local contracts and compare their communities to others much as they would use census data or Education Department stats.

The Center for Effective Government has built a very good tool that does some of this – Fedspending.org – but it only includes data from the previous fiscal year and earlier, which drastically limits its use for daily reporting. It also only includes the top 100 federal contractors and it only breaks down contracts by state and congressional district, not by county or city. Money in politics is one story our proposed site could tell but it’s only one of many.

You also asked about tracking the way contracts are divvied up between different plants owned by the contractor and, more often, between a prime contractor and subcontractors. Government contractors must report the first layer of subcontractor data on USAspending.gov and we could likely link some of this information in. That information comes in long after contract awards, though, so it would be less beneficial for daily reporting, which we hope will be a major use of the site. Much of that information could be gathered in a more timely way by traditional shoe leather reporting, however, and that’s ideally what would happen. In other words, we hope the site will be a resource to launch larger investigative projects rather than a final product itself.

I’ll update the proposal to include some of this info and please let me know if I’ve left anything unanswered.

Best,

Joe
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 26, 2013, 12:33PM
Just to clarify, the existing federal sites only allow you to search by state as the smallest geographic area and don't allow searches based on dollar value of the contract - the thing reporters would be most interested in. FBO.gov won't send email updates about new contracts unless you have a DUNS number, which is a lengthy process.
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
March 15, 2013, 08:07AM
Hi Daniel,

Just a note to let you know we've updated the entry to focus more narrowly on contracts and contract disputes during their first year online when they generally aren't being captured by existing open data sources such as Fedspending.org. We've also updated the interface to focus more heavily on self-tailored email alerts. This will limit the time commitment for local watchdogs to a manageable level while raising local scrutiny of federal contracts.

Thanks for checking our entry out.

Joe
February 26, 2013, 08:50PM
Hi Joe,

I love that you’re proposing to localize federal contract data. I’m part of a team that submitted something similar for program-level federal awards data: https://www.newschallenge.org/open/open-government/submission/a-citizen-centered-federal-budget/

While you’re approaching localized federal spending from a contract perspective, our audience is individuals, so we’re looking at programs as a whole (e.g., food stamps, social security, Pell grants) to see how they affect communities.

Are you open to a quick chat about these different lenses on federal dollars and how they might complement one another?

Thanks for your work!
Joseph Marks's reply to Zach Edwards's comment
February 27, 2013, 11:01AM
Hi Becky,

That sounds like a great conversation. Email me at jmarks@govexec.com.

Thanks,

Joe
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