Privatizing Public Information


Now that some, if not all, of the press has woken up to its responsibilities to the point that a few are actually doing their jobs, the Bush Administration has decided to punish them–and any other curious citizens–by…you’re not ready for this, I can tell you’re not ready for this…starting to sell off the govt’s databases to private ‘contractors’, effectively privatizing and outsourcing public information in one fell swoop. Read it and weep.

Established by an act of Congress in 1979, the Federal Procurement Data System was a rare island of public information, the only complete record of federal contracts. Using the database, journalists, auditors and federal investigators could review the million or so agreements with corporations Uncle Sam signed each year. They could find the companies reaping the largest awards, track the rise in no-bid deals, and measure the recent drive to replace federal employees with corporate employees. But under a new contract, the General Services Administration has now turned over responsibility for collecting and distributing information on government contracts to a beltway company called Global Computer Enterprises, Inc.In signing the $24 million deal, the Bush Administration has privatized not only the collection and distribution of the data, but the database itself. For the first time since the system was established, the information will not be available directly to the public or subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to federal officials. “It’s a contractor owned and operated system,” explains Nancy Gunsauls, a project manager at GCE. “We have the data.”

So screw you.

In a shrewd move you have to admire for its ruthless and far-reaching implications in protecting themselves from scrutiny in a way which will be totally under the radar, the Bush Administration has violated both the Congressionally-mandated charter of the General Services Admin and the whole concept of non-partisan govt accountability on almost any level, while at the same time taking the newest step in what is sure to be a profitable venture, for them if not for us: selling off the govt piece-by-piece. Yes indeed, boys and girls, they sold it. They sold our information for $$24Mil$$ and handed it to a private company who will now sell it back to us.

Tony Soprano would be proud. What a scam. And it’s all as legal as it is deplorably scummy. Even Bush partisans are a little discomposed over it. Angela Styles, Bush’s ex-procurement chief (she left a year ago), said in what has to go down as the understatement of the week, ‘It seems that something quite inappropriate has been done here.’ Well, duh. ‘They have ceded their responsibility.’ Wrong word, Angie. They didn’t ‘cede’ it, they ‘sold’ it.

Apart from effectively ‘insulat[ing] the process from inspection’, the deal is going to be so expensive for GCE that it would appear the prices for ‘their’ information are going to be hitting the ceiling right off the bat.

A federal official close to the contracting process admits that all users — even those seeking limited access — will probably pay more. Just how much more is unclear, as the pricing structure has yet to be established. Under the agreement, GCE can sell unlimited access to clients on an individual basis for “market value.” But Paul Murphy, president of the private consulting firm, Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., says a GCE representative told him he would have to pay $35,000 for data he once got for about $1,500.

What’s that, a 3000% increase? Not bad, ay? Why so much, besides the obvious and now standard excessive corporate greed? Well, because, as Murphy explains, the $24Mil is just a start.

“This is very troubling,” says Murphy…. Under the terms of the contract, GCE must split its revenue from selling access to the database with the federal government. “When does a partnership become a kickback?” Murphy asks.

About now, I would guess. I suspect Veep Cheney had something to do with this deal; the kickback scheme has ‘Halliburton’ written all over it in big neon-red letters a foot-high over the WH door. This is SOP for them; they’ve been indicted for it several times and convicted of it at least once. The Army is investigating their gasoline scheme in Iraq which involved kickbacks from a sub-contractor. This is the way they do business–on the slimy edge.

There are a lot of implications to this move, all of them nasty–read the rest of the article and pay particular attention to the GCE rep’s hilarious explanation of why this is actually, really, honestly, a Good Thing for the country, and his one-line comedy skit: ‘GCE doesn’t expect to make much money off the project’–but I want to mention two that MoJo doesn’t: the effect on the quality of information gathered and the fact that Kerry may not be able to kill this contract.

Reporter Michael Scherer doesn’t seem to think the information itself will be adversely affected–at least he doesn’t get around to bringing it up–but I’m not so sure. Presumably the same departments will be collecting the info the same way they always have. But then they’re going to turn it over to GCE who a) have the usual corporate hunger for cutting corners, thus threatening the viability of the amount and completeness of the information entered into the system, and b) could have as vested an interest in hiding info as in disclosing it. If GCE ‘owns’ the data, it would have as much right to accept payment to keep a certain company’s dealings with the govt out of the database as it would to accept payment to disclose them. And if you think an American corporation that has just paid $$Millions$$ for a product is going to overlook that little Golden Goose, you haven’t been paying attention.

Second, the inviolability of the contract–or the length of its term–isn’t known. Having signed it in the name of the US Govt, Bush may have effectively made it impossible for a different president to get out of it; we may be stuck with it until it comes up for renewal, or have to go through the courts to undo it–a long procedure that could easily leave the data in GCE’s hands for 7-10 years while the case winds its way through a clogged system.

At the rate these guys are selling it off, there may not be much govt left for Kerry to govern with by the time he takes over. But I suppose that must be the whole idea.

While you’re pondering that, I’ll leave you with this example of standard corporate practice with regard to sharing information.

When contacted by a Mother Jones reporter seeking a copy of the data, a GCE representative suggested a one-on-one meeting at the company’s offices in Reston, Virginia. “We like to meet with folks and find out how they are using the data to provide a real-time access to the database,” Gunsauls explained. She declined to discuss costs over the phone. The first available date she had for an in-person meeting, she said, was two weeks away.

So first they get to decide whether they think you’re the kind of person who deserves access to their precious product. Translation: ‘Are you going to use this against the President or any other office-holding Republican? or any corporation (like us)?’ *Annnh!* ‘Access Denied’.

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2 responses to “Privatizing Public Information

  1. Ten years later, and GCE still “owns” the data in FPDS-NG. Now they also run USA Spending, which needs to get a feed from FPDS-NG to operate. They also have the data from the Department of Labor financial system hostage. You were right. Oh, and they ran the development of everything through India and mis-used H1B visa holders to boot. The company is under investigation but still continues to operate. And the Senate just passed the DATA Act, which would significantly increase the amount of information going through USA Spending…..

  2. Thanks for the update, Sophie. I’m sorry I was right but it was all perfectly predictable. SOP. My assumption that Kerry would change it if he won was a Hail Mary. We’ll never know but he probably wouldn’t have. Now its “the way it is”. SOP. It won’t change.

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