Every Contractor a Potential Crony?

My friend Zubedah Nanfuka at the Sunlight Foundation highlights my colleague Logan Morford’s wake-up call about the risks of shutting off government contractors from Kentucky’s open records laws.

Why do we require government agencies (and those who contract with the government) to avail themselves of requests for information from the public? A few reasons.

  1. It’s our business! It should never be forgotten in this debate over government transparency that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. When governments perform basic services for us (or use contractors to do so), we have an affirmative right to access almost all of the basic information and sometimes very detailed information about how they’re doing that job.
  2. Government overseers can’t be everywhere. It might be tempting to allow lawmakers or executive agencies exclusively police the activities of their subordinates or contractors. It would a recipe for disaster. Without public input (reporters, citizen journalists and interested parties), lawmakers would be blinded by the sheer volume of material that would be necessary to get a clear picture of agency or contractor activities.
  3. Cronyism is real. This is perhaps the most relevant point to be made today. When Governor Beshear hands out “incentives” (read: subsidies) to Kentucky businesses, the public should be entitled to know almost every detail about how their tax dollars are being used by private entities under the popular guise of “economic development.” For simplicity, let’s leave aside the poor record of government officials to pick winners and losers in the marketplace and simply say that if you are a government contractor or beneficiary of subsidies from the government, you’re already a suspected crony. Shielding your records from public scrutiny won’t help your case.

What’s that? I can hear the complaints already.

“But Caleb,” a would-be opaque contractor might say, “it’s just such a burden for us to comply with these open records laws.”

My retort: There are already protections built into Kentucky’s open records laws (and Attorney General interpretations of those requirements) to protect against overly burdensome requests. There is no reason why these protections can’t be extended to government contractors. Also, so what? Being open with the public is a cost of doing business as a government contractor. Compliance is likely a tax deductible expense.

“But Caleb,” the same would-be opaque contractor might respond, “if I have to share certain details about my work with the government, I’ll certainly have to give up details that will help my competitors.”

My response: If your competitors will be using this information with which to form a more competitive bid to that agency, then your complaint smacks of chutzpah. It’s like saying, “But if I compete in the open, my profits might be lower.” For the taxpayers who are the ultimate funders of government contracts, your government-derived profits are perfectly irrelevant to the goal of providing quality low-cost government services.

When contractors do the work that governments can’t or won’t, the public can reap some savings by having a more nimble and market-responsive organization doing the job. But there’s simply not a good case to be made for allowing those same organizations – when they act as government contractors – to ignore the rules that would make them at least as accountable as the agency paying them to do work for Kentucky citizens.

Read more of Logan’s open records tips.

Comments

  1. Jane Doe says:

    Funny, I thought I knew Bluegrass Institute. You’re sounding rather anti-capitalist. And BIG GOVERNMENT. Can you imagine having the government gain access to the budget, salary and expenditures of every institution in America who does business with any local, county, state or federal office? Is that really what you think will HELP our economy grow and business thrive? There is a reason it is called PRIVATE enterprise.

    • Logan Morford says:

      Jane Doe:

      Not sure exactly what you are arguing. We are advocating the access of information to see how taxpayer money is spent – with government or private business. When a private company takes public money, they must realize that comes with strings attached.

      if businesses do not want to be subject to these requests, they should not take public money.

    • Jane,

      Government doesn’t create jobs. Private entrepreneurs willing to take risks to create value are the ones who ultimately create jobs.

      When governments take money from taxpayers, it’s their job to spend that money well. Sometimes that involves using government workers. Sometimes it involves using private contractors. The rules governing open records for government agencies and contractors are meant to make sure both are being accountable when they are spending taxpayer dollars.

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