Obama Administration Redacts Contract Details for Recovery.gov

Published on
by
ProPublica

Obama Administration Redacts Contract Details for Recovery.gov

by
Christopher Flavelle

Software company,Smartronix,landed an $18 million contract to build a Web site where taxpayers could easily track billions in federal stimulus money. But it seems the drive for transparency doesn’t cover the contract itself. After weeks of prodding by ProPublica and other organizations, the General Services Administration released copies of the contract and related documents that are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.

Back in July, a software company named Smartronix [1]
landed an $18 million contract to build a Web site where taxpayers
could easily track billions in federal stimulus money. It was just
another part of the Obama administration's ongoing effort to bring
transparency to stimulus spending, we were told.

But it seems the drive for transparency doesn't cover the contract itself.

After
weeks of prodding by ProPublica and other organizations, the General
Services Administration released copies of the contract and related
documents that are so heavily blacked out they are virtually worthless.

Don't believe us? Take a look. [2]

ProPublica
sought the contract under the Freedom of Information Act to find out
what kind of site Smartronix planned to build and to assess whether it
justified the cost, which Republican critics of the stimulus plan
called "unreal." [3]

Ed
Pound, the director of communications for the Recovery Accountability
and Transparency Board, defended the redactions as "legitimate." The
Web site Smartronix is to build will replace Recovery.gov [4], the existing stimulus Web portal run by the transparency board.

"I'm not concerned about whether journalists are concerned about this," Pound said. "We have been very transparent."

The
GSA declined to comment, but said in its response to ProPublica's FOIA
request that such redactions were allowed if material "involves
substantial risk of competitive injury" to a contractor.

But the blacked-out information includes material that seems harmless to the company, such as the names and backgrounds of key personnel [2] and the number of visitors expected [5] by the site during traffic spikes.

Some sections of the contract were redacted in their entirety. They include:

In
all, 25 pages of a 59-page technical proposal - the main document in
the package - were redacted completely. Of the remaining pages, 14 had
half or more of their content blacked out.

The secrecy drew criticism from government transparency watchdogs.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press [6], noted that information labeled "contractor proposed deliverables [7]" had been completely redacted.

"I
think it's on the one hand funny, but on the other hand frightening,"
said Dalglish. "How are you going to keep these people's feet to the
fire? You can't evaluate whether or not they delivered on the contract
unless you know what they promised to deliver. That's just nuts."

Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics [8],
agreed. "It's difficult to make an accurate comparison with any other
potential services when you can't even see what the rates are for
different types of programming services and job functions," he said.
"Sure, you get the overall number, but could there be a better deal out
there? We don't know."

A spokeswoman for Smartronix,
headquartered in Maryland, confirmed that the company was given the
chance to propose redactions in the documents, as allowed by the
Freedom of Information Act.

However, Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition [9], faulted the GSA for allowing the documents to be redacted so extensively.

"The
government should have come back at the redaction and said, ‘Oh, for
the love of God, nobody can tell anything from what you've redacted
here,'" said Davis. "If you're going to create a system designed
ostensibly to provide greater transparency around a piece of the
federal government, it would certainly be a great start to provide some
transparency in the contract itself."

Clay Johnson, the director of the Sunlight Labs [10] project at the Sunlight Foundation [11], called the level of redaction in the documents remarkable.

"I
think the people have a right to know what their money is being spent
on," he said. "We still don't really know what the government's buying
here, other than that it's a Web site."

The criticism from the Sunlight Foundation is notable. Smartronix says in its proposal that it has "engaged the Sunlight Foundation as advisers on government transparency [12]," adding that the foundation "is willing to advise Team Smartronix on transparency [2]."

Johnson
disputed that characterization. He said that while he had spoken with
one of Smartronix's subcontractors and agreed to have Sunlight listed
as an adviser, he had never spoken with anyone from the company itself
and isn't involved in the contract.

"We're willing to advise anybody on transparency," said Johnson.

ProPublica
has filed an appeal with the GSA, arguing that the redactions were
excessive and requesting that more of the information in the Smartronix
documents be released. We'll let you know what it says.

 

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