A recent spate of stories has us concerned that, despite efforts by the Obama administration to open data and streamline the way that government builds technology, many federal agencies still have a nasty habit of giving up control of valuable data and vital technology to contractors instead of sharing it openly with the public that pays for it.
Locking up data under strict contracting conditions and allowing private companies to maintain ownership over government websites keeps public data out of public hands, stifles innovation and clearly costs government — and the American people — money in the long run.
The Obama administration appears to recognize this and has taken steps to change the system, but it appears that many individual agencies have been slow to follow suit. Two recent examples clearly illustrate the problem.
Of bailouts and identifiers: the federal spending story
We’ve spent a lot of time recently highlighting the problems associated with the government’s reliance on proprietary DUNS numbers to track entities and the broader impacts on the quality and usability of federal spending data.
A federal contractor that used to go by Global Computer Enterprises (GCE) but appears to have changed its name to Serendipity Now (begging the question, when did federal contracting turn into a Seinfeld episode?) and filed for bankruptcy protection.
Unfortunately for the federal government, the company had built some vital software, including USASpending.gov, the Federal Procurement Data System — Next Generation — and the Labor Department’s financial management system.
Even more unfortunately for the federal government, the contracts gave the company ownership of the software and associated data.
The government couldn’t simply turn to another, more solvent contractor to continue operating the systems when GCE filed for bankruptcy because it had signed away the rights to the public’s data to GCE. No GCE, no data. Instead, it had to shell out more than $30 million to buy the systems and data and ensure that Serendipity Now could keep them in operation until a more competitive bidding process could be completed.
Federal contracting is a big business with no shortage of competition. What is the government doing giving up ownership of data and systems, especially ones with such clear public value as USASpending.gov?
Kayak for campsites: Not yet, not ever?
Why does the government allow contractors to horde data for themselves, even as the public clamors for better access to government information?
That’s the question currently being raised about Recreation.gov, a site that was set up to make it easier to interface with America’s public lands but which has been criticized for its slow interface and closed model.
According to the Washington Post article, “there is a growing chorus of critics calling for the government to allow the private sector to step in and develop other sites for booking space for your RV at Acadia National Park in Maine, a snowmobiling trip in Yellowstone or just checking on the amenities.”
A new contract to run Recreation.gov is being floated that would allow the winning bidder to withhold reservation data from third parties like Kayak or Hipcamp, preventing them from adding significant value to their services, and could even prevent the free public release of the data.
Companies, like Hipcamp, have spoken out against the terms of this contract, arguing that it puts the relevant data “and its associated revenue into the hands of one contractor and one website, creating a closed silo and a monopoly.” It’s the same proprietary relationship that sucked the blood out of Recovery.gov, and dragged the federal government into GCE’s bankruptcy.
Hipcamp argues that the government should be responsible for maintaining this data, but instead of giving a contractor complete control it should be released freely for Americans to use as they see fit; we tend to agree.
Giving a contractor a monopoly of this sort seems to be in direct conflict with President Obama’s open data efforts, which aim to improve transparency as well as boost innovation and lead to economic benefits.
This isn’t merely an issue of upstart companies fighting with more entrenched corporate interests. Open data may provide economic opportunities, but it also makes it easier for groups and people to build free and open source tools that serve the public interest.
These problems aren’t new, but they might be slowly changing.
The Obama administration has put significant energy into opening up government data and, recently, even more energy into changing the way that government buys and builds technology.
It has launched new offices, like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service, to build better technology and streamline the process of buying and building government technology respectively. 18F has a clear open source policy and the recently launched US Digital Services Playbook has a focus on open data.
These efforts need to outlast the current administration, becoming an integral part of how agencies approach technology and data. Agencies have to recognize that the contractors they pay to build technology and create data are providing services that are ultimately being paid for by the American people. The American people need and deserve access to the information created by their tax dollars.
Congress can, and should, pass legislation that codifies some of these steps forward. But the federal government shouldn’t wait for Congress to pull it into the future. And, right now, the Executive Branch should stop signing the country onto these perilous contracts that threaten to swallow up public data — and a hundreds of millions of dollars.