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Conflict Erupts Over Transparency in Washington, D.C., Procurement Reform

Two procurement reform bills have been introduced: one by City Council members that calls for transparency; another by Mayor Muriel Bowser that fights for efficiency.

by / December 9, 2015
Washington D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser Wikimedia Commons

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and City Council members are stewing over two procurement reform bills that pit transparency against executive decision-making.

The ideological tug of war stems from bills by Bowser and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson whose proposals could impact public access to procurement documents online and alter the city council’s oversight on costly contracts.

To expedite procurements, Bowser has submitted a bill that would reduce the city council’s authority while increasing her administration’s ability to move previously approved contracts forward. This includes doing away with secondary council approvals for option years — that could change during the course of vendor negotiations. It would also dismiss additional council reviews when city agencies and vendors have adjusted a contract so costs extend beyond the $1 million mark. The changes are intended to cut what the mayor’s administration sees as unnecessary, and sometimes burdensome,  procedures.

The mayor’s office was not immediately available for comment on the bill.

In contrast, Mendelson’s bill, submitted with six additional council members, increases the council’s oversight of contracts while promoting transparency through a searchable public database of contracts valued at $100,000 or more. The open database would be further populated with a summary that lists contracts of less than $100,000. Mendelson's measure raises D.C.’s transparency standards that, at present, have council documents in unsearchable PDF formats and omit notifications of contracts less than $100,000. Likewise, the bill calls for an Ombudsman to oversee the accuracy and transparency of  procurements.

In an interview with Government Technology Thursday, Mendelson said he believed the additional transparency, and the council’s contract deliberations shouldn’t be seen as a roadblock to nimble government, especially when there are simple remedies in reach. 

“The way that [the mayor’s] argument is stated is misleading, the process would not be expedited,” Mendelson said of the opposing bill. “The issue is that the executive office has had difficulty with procuring services in a timely way.”

He ascribed delays to procurement management, city practices he said could be improved with more foresight.

“What they need to do is better planning,” Mendelson said. “If the contracting officer is not planning his or her procurements then every step in the process can be a bother.”

Despite the impasse, he noted that just because he or his fellow council members disagreed with the mayor on the  issue, it didn’t mean the council’s relationship was at odds with leadership.

“That fact that there are disagreements on a particular issue doesn’t mean there is bad relationship,” Mendelson said.

Notwithstanding, the legislative face-off represents another conflict between the Bowser administration and City Council. In April, the council disapproved a push by the mayor to approve a $66 million multi-year contract with Corizon Health for health services of local inmates. It did so based on negative reports about Corizon’s capacity to provide reliable service, meet contract obligations, and deliver quality of care in other states — most notably in Florida.

Going forward, Mendelson said the council is still evaluating the merits of both bills for a final decision by council sometime in the first quarter of 2016.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.