A Stimulus With Integrity

By Deval Patrick and Martha Coakley

With news every day of more layoffs and bankruptcies, enactment of President Obama's massive economic recovery package means help is on the way. The focus now is on speed, putting people to work, getting contracts awarded and shovels in the ground quickly. As we do so, we must take pains to balance speed with care.

The public has reason to be wary. A recent wave of stories from various states about apparent corruption, fraud, and "pay to play" abuses in the awarding of government contracts and other benefits have shaken confidence in the ability of government to steward public funds wisely. Add to that the lax oversight and accountability at the root of the current economic crisis and it is perfectly understandable why people are so skeptical.

State and local governments should take this to heart. As we plan to disperse billions of taxpayer stimulus dollars, we must have bidding and compliance programs that will guarantee accountability and transparency. Here are a few measures we are trying in Massachusetts:

  • State public bidding programs. With the stimulus, state transportation agencies, IT departments and other agencies will be flooded with bids for lucrative contracts. Speed in procurement is an important objective, particularly in the context of federal "use it or lose it" requirements that will mandate the expedited commencement of projects. However, speed must be balanced with critical public bidding protections necessary to ensure that contracts are competitively and impartially awarded based on the value and quality of the goods and services to be provided. To start projects quickly with necessary procurement accountability protections, state agencies will need to operate robust but efficient procurement processes (for instance, by having sufficient trained professionals to review expedited bids, ensure contract compliance and payment of required wages, and so forth).
  • Project monitors. Once contracts are awarded, state agencies need auditors to monitor the actual spending. With so much money flowing so quickly, some contractors will be tempted to submit inflated bills, or worse. Agencies must scrutinize the bills before they are paid.
  • State law enforcement. State Inspectors General and Auditors will need to play a critical watchdog role in reviewing stimulus contracts to make sure they are free from inefficiency, fraud and corruption. State Attorneys General must also aggressively investigate and prosecute fraudulent and corrupt conduct.
  • Websites to shine light on public bidding. States should develop central websites like Massachusetts' www.mass.gov/recovery to list the names of all bidders on stimulus contracts, post all stimulus contracts and report on the progress of work carried out under those contracts. Such websites should also make it easy for the public to get information on lobbyists and subcontractors used by bidders and campaign contributions made by bidders.

In Massachusetts, we are already working to implement these measures on an expedited basis. Dedicating resources to such efforts will help give the public confidence that expensive contracts are being awarded based on merit and value, not bribes, friendships, or for mere expediency. Without such integrity measures, we will surely pay a high price later - in the form of inefficient contracts, shoddy work and products, and expensive prosecutions of people who have committed fraud.

In the private sector, CEOs live by the truism: "Fast, Good or Cheap - Pick Two." When it comes to an unprecedented $800 billion stimulus package, we can have fast action to boost our economy, and it can be done well, with integrity and free from influence-peddling and corruption. But it cannot be "cheap." We need robust audit programs, public bidding procedures, and other measures that let sunshine into the bidding process and prevent insider deals.

Indeed, the economic crisis and the crisis in government ethics provide a unique opportunity to strengthen public bidding measures and create new mechanisms for transparency and openness. As we act promptly to get the economy moving again, we should embrace proper regulation of public contracting - we ought not view these needed safeguards as impediments or obstacles to be abandoned. One of President Obama's greatest promises is to restore the public's trust in government itself. A well-designed stimulus program with robust integrity measures will be a major step in that direction.