Watchdog: Follow the Money

State Department's Facebook spending highlights lack of transparency in contracting data

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Watchdog,Michal Conger,Facebook,State Department,Follow the Money,Spending,Government Contractors,Transparency

State Department spending of $630,000 to generate more Facebook likes drew national criticism when it was revealed last year.

Recently released government contract solicitation data reveals more about the department's social media strategy, but still falls short of painting a complete picture of its spending.

Instead, the solicitations highlight the lack of transparency in the department's contracting data.

The solicitations, which were originally posted on the federal contracting database FedBizOpps.gov, show the department's efforts to use social media to promote its image overseas and track international conversations on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

Most of the solicitations are for Facebook advertisements, promotional materials and marketing for U.S. embassy pages. But because of major gaps in the available data, there's not much more information.

The solicitations were obtained by the Sunlight Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act request as part of a database of 13 years of federal contract information.

For instance, a search of the the data provided to Sunlight doesn't show the awards associated with the solicitations.

Unless the award for a particular solicitation can be tracked down elsewhere, information on the price tag and the contractor given the job aren't readily available.

Contract information on USASpending.gov, another federal spending database, illustrates why the lack of information can be problematic.

Of the department's 27 contracts for Facebook and other social media, 11 contracts went to "miscellaneous foreign contractors," according to the database.

In this case, the contractors are allowed to be listed as miscellaneous because they're overseas vendors doing small jobs, and lack international contractor identification numbers, according to a department spokeswoman.

But the anonymous awards are a common occurrence at the department, which has had 237,931 transactions worth nearly $4.8 billion to miscellaneous foreign contractors since 2000, according to USASpending.gov.

The 237,931 total includes contracts, as well as change orders and other actions related to existing contracts.

The lack of transparency in the department's contracting is a serious problem, according to Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

"The failure of the State Department to let the public know how much of the public's money is going to which contractor unfortunately matches the State Department's general refusal to let the public know anything about its contracting in general, and its contracting mistakes in particular," he said.

Tiefer was a member of the Commission on Wartime Contracting from 2008 to 2011.

One of the anonymous contracts was for security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which was destroyed during the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

That contract went to a small British company called Blue Mountain.

In its August 2011 report to Congress, Tiefer's commission expressed frustration with the proliferation of miscellaneous contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The second-highest category of contingency contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011 was for awards to "miscellaneous foreign contractors" worth a total of $38.5 billion.

"We were unhappy that we were going to be presenting a table [of contractors] in which the second entry was at best uninformative, and at worst a smoke screen," Tiefer said.

"When they [the State Department] go miscellaneous, they may or may not be obeying the contracting rules," he said.

"Partly they may be obtaining flexibility to bypass the rules without the formal procedures like waivers that have to be issued by higher authorities," he said.

The lack of transparency doesn't end with the anonymous contract awards.

A comparison of multiple federal contracting databases doesn't come close to showing how much the department actually spends on its social media presence.

The $630,000 bill uncovered by the department's inspector general last year contrasts with $478,721 indicated by USASpending.gov in Facebook spending since 2009.

A department spokesman said last year that no one there knew how much the agency as a whole was spending on Facebook or social media.

Only the Defense Department, which has awarded nine contracts totaling $1,231,606, has spent more than State on Facebook contracts, according to USASpending.gov. None went to miscellaneous contractors.

In fact, the Broadcasting Board of Governors is the only other agency that awarded the anonymous social media contracts, also to small overseas contractors.

USAID awards to "foreign contractors (undisclosed)" name the contractor in the solicitation description.

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