Government Contracts Should Be Easier to Access

Earlier this year, the Alaska Policy Forum submitted public records requests to local governments and school districts looking for any sole-source contracts. While some responses were good, others were not.

By Jeremy Thompson

July 7, 2010

It shouldn’t be this difficult.

Earlier this year, the Alaska Policy Forum submitted public records requests to local governments and school districts looking for any sole-source contracts they may have, asking for the name of the vendor, date of the contract, and the value of the contract. We made the same request of state government.

There were three classes of response to these public records requests. The first type of response was answered with a prompt reply, usually a phone call for clarification, and either a fax, letter or email providing the requested information. This is especially refreshing, because often when one asks for public records, there can be awkwardness, resistance and sometimes even indignation, expressed by the civil servant filling the request.

The second kind of response we received usually meant that the request needed to be “coached” along, or it would not be provided.  Alaska State law requires a response to public records requests within 10 days. If a response was not received, follow -up phone calls needed to be placed to ask about the original letter request. Often this class of response is not because of any malicious intent or resistance. Filling public records requests just isn’t high on their list of priorities, or maybe the civil servant just isn’t experienced in answering them.

The third kind of response we received was overt resistance. In these cases (there were only a few), we received a reply letter written by a lawyer representing the government entity, saying that the request was vague and in need of clarification.

The response from the City of Sitka said that our request involved compiling information, and since compiling this public information meant that they would have to create a new document (the list), they weren’t required to fill our request. The response letter was careful to point out that we would have to pre-pay for any staff time spent searching records, and for any copies of documents at 25 cents per page. The letter also informed us that Sitka has tens of thousands of pages of contracts (sole-source and otherwise) that would need to be copied.

The response from Ketchikan was similarly expensive except that Ketchikan wanted to charge one dollar per page for copying the “literally hundreds of thousands of pages” that fell under the umbrella of our request.

We might be distracted by the audacious opposition to transparency that Sitka and Ketchikan have demonstrated, but that would lead us away from the more important point. No one should have to send a letter or fax to request these documents. Contracts should be made available online for the public to view.

Effective transparency doesn’t have to be expensive.

For $300, one can purchase a document scanner that converts paper copies to electronic PDF files for web publishing. For pennies a day, one can purchase website space to post these electronic files. Most local governments already have their own websites, so purchasing a website isn’t even necessary in many cases. These are small prices to pay for transparency and providing information to Alaskan citizens.

And it isn’t just sole-source contracts that should be accessible for download?all public contracts should be accessible online. However, it’s especially important that sole-source contracts be as accessible as possible because for this class of contracts there is no competitive bidding process.

Transparency isn’t intuitive for any bureaucracy. It must be planned, tested, executed, and maintained with a great deal of thought, keeping in mind that transparency isn’t an end in itself. Shining the light of openness on government engages its citizenry.

Jeremy Thompson is the Executive Director of the Alaska Policy Forum. The results of the public records request for sole-source contracts were compiled into a database. You can view the database here.