D.C. mayor, city council battle over transparency in procurement reform

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Dueling proposals to overhaul the procurement process in Washington, D.C., are creating friction between the city council and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration.

The council is currently reviewing a pair of bills focused on procurement, but each contains very different provisions that could have major implications for hefty IT contracts and the city’s public database of procurement documents.

At issue is how best to balance the need for openness and efficacy. A bill backed by Council Chairman Phil Mendelsohn is aimed at increasing the council’s oversight of contracts and opening up more data about the procurement process to public scrutiny in an online database. Bowser’s proposal would limit legislative oversight in select scenarios in an effort to improve efficiency.

“The difference between the two bills is mine is more about transparency, getting more information,” Mendelsohn told StateScoop. “The more information the council gets, the more information the public gets. The more sunlight there is on the procurement process, the greater the likelihood that the procurements are good and competitive.”

Under a 2010 procurement reform law, officials must post all public information on contracts valued over $100,000 to a single website in a machine-readable and searchable format. Mendelsohn, who feels the city uploads PDFs that don’t meet those standards, said his bill would create a searchable database of all those contracts and their supporting documents. It would also call for a list of all contracts under $100,000 and brief descriptions of their terms.

“We want more information in the contract summaries that we get, that the public gets, and more information available on the website, so you can go on a searchable website and obtain information and answers to your questions about contracts,” Mendelsohn said.

In a statement to StateScoop, Chief Procurement Officer George Schutter defended the administration’s efforts to improve transparency. But he said the administration also wants to streamline the procurement process as the city tries to work with ever-changing technology.

“We want to make the district an attractive place to do business for our current and future partners in industry,” Schutter said. “More efficient contracting procedures in the district give program managers and contracting officers more opportunity to engage industry for innovative solutions to meet the needs of district residents.”

The mayor’s bill would no longer require the council to review the executive approval of option years on a contract. Schutter said that councilors would have already seen those terms during initial reviews of the contract. Similarly, the bill would end legislative review of contracts worth more than $1 million by subsequent vendor or agency modifications — D.C. laws currently require council approval for all contracts past that dollar threshold.

“The proposed legislation reduces the inefficient, duplicative review of contract option periods that were previously approved by the legislative branch,” Schutter said. “It’s less about speed and more about efficiency.”

Mendelsohn worries that removing those reviews will reduce the amount of information passed to the council regarding internal evaluations of the evolving deals, particularly because that data is normally then made public online as part of council documents.

Meanwhile, Ruairi MacDonald, senior manager of procurement policy for the Open Contracting Partnership advocacy group, thinks there’s a way forward for the city that bridges those divergent concerns.

“Agility and transparency can be complementary,” McDonald said. “If there’s more transparency around the decisions that need to happen quickly, there’s less need for reviews by council. Every contract will be different, but our feeling is we want to rapidly publish lots of data around the decision, so that anybody can review the decision.”

Specifically, he wants to see the city adhere to his group’s “Open Contracting Data Standard,” a process that requires the city to post contracts and supporting documents in real time, not just after they’re approved.

“There’s too much reliance on ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’ notifications,” McDonald said.  “You can allow procurement officials to be more agile and give them more discretion if you are doing that sort of real-time rapid reporting.”

McDonald felt the city’s adoption of some of Mendelsohn’s suggestions, coupled with some more expansive transparency efforts, can make the process of doing business with the city better for everyone.

“There can be a culture of disclosure and engagement and open data,” McDonald said.

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D.C., Digital Services, Legislation, Legislator, Mayor, Mayor Muriel Bowser, Open Contracting Partnership, Open Data, Open Government, Procurement, State & Local News, States, Tech News, transparency, Washington, Websites
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