My article on open records and Government contracts in the DMRegister

This article appeared in December 1, 2013 issue of the Des Moines Register’s Business section. It is encapsulated here and the original article is here to discuss my opinion on open records/FOIA as they relate to government contracts and the innovation economy.

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The massive debacle that is Obamacare’s website launch is the latest example of what happens when you shut out the innovation economy from government contracts.

As the largest buyer in the country, the U.S. government spends amounts as mundane as a few hundred dollars for goods to hundreds of millions in technology for its various agencies. The services are procured using requests for proposals, or RFPs, multiple award master contracts and, in many cases, no-bid contracts.

These are meant to inject transparency and equal footing for service providers. But they do not.

As a former government contractor, one of the greatest challenges was even finding RFPs to respond to. In the world of public sharing of information, federal, state and even local governments hide behind a labyrinth of systems when they file their requests. Registration systems pre-screen vendors and respondents while creating bond and insurance requirements only a chosen few can meet. This filters out the innovation economy.

It is no surprise that innovation centers of the U.S. aren’t home to government contractors. Innovators don’t have, or don’t spend time developing, lobbyists who simultaneously act as salespeople. Innovators are usually first to market with new ideas and products and are, thus, not often able to provide three or more customer references for people who have used the products.

While Obamacare’s website is the latest technology solution to fall victim to a lack of innovative solutions, it’s certainly not the first. Between 2000 and 2005, the FBI spent $170 million on an ultimately abandoned software application that ended up being “incomplete, inadequate” and “unusable under real-world conditions,” according to a Washington Post report. The job was done by an American defense contractor.

We must demand more public access to how our dollars are being spent and give innovators a chance to help.

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