How Much To Build a Grants and Contracts Database?


Sunlight’s been an active analyst on what turns out to be Sen. Ted Stevens’ hold on the Coburn-Obama bill and how the lack of transparency of this peculiar Senate process is a huge disservice to our democracy, even though it has long been a hallmark of how the Senate does its business. It’s time has come and now, thanks to citizens’ response to the blogosphere’s rallying calls to find out who was at the bottom of  the hold, gone. (OK. That’s too optimistic, but I bet that the next time a high profile piece of legislation is moving, a Senator will think twice about putting a secret "hold" on it.)

But Sen. Stevens has a point. Surely we should know precisely the cost of such an endeavor. It turns out that, according to the Congressional Budget office, implementing the on-line search database might cost $9 million in the first 2 years and $2 million each year thereafter — about $15 million over the 2007-2011 period. Now it’s up to the public to decide whether it’s worth having the information about how the government spends their money available for that cost. It seems to me that if some dubious contracts are exposed — and eliminated — that the cost benefit ratio is pretty good.

But wait a minute! One of the very first grants that the Sunlight Foundation made was to create an online searchable database of government grants and contracts that is nearly identical in terms of functionality to the one that would be mandated by the Coburn-Obama bill. We made a 3-year grant to the nonprofit organization OMB Watch for a total of — hold your breath — $234,713!  

 I spoke with Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, last night to figure out whether what OMB Watch is developing is substantially different than the $15 million database proposed by Coburn-Obama bill. In his characteristic fashion, he responded: "Nope."

Uh….if the nonprofit sector can do the work for less than $250,000, and that includes getting up the initial database (that goes back to 2000, which the bill doesn’t require) in less than 6 months, surely the government could do it faster . While the OMB Watch service is vitally important, particuarly in the absence of a government database, the government should be able to do a much better job, providing improved public access. Bottom line: This kind of information about government spending should be done by the government — not nonprofit watchdogs. And the government does not need to wait for legislation to accomplish the mandate in the Coburn-Obama bill.