July 25, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Senate Web Site Offers No Clear Route to Contracts

When Ted Clark heard rumblings last year about an upcoming Senate contract to develop an information management system, he had high hopes — his 3-year-old company, THEO Inc., performs just that type of work.

Months went by. He checked Senate.gov: nothing. Google searches came up empty. And when the project finally appeared on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site, fbo.gov, it gave companies little more than two weeks to submit the paperwork.

The process, Clark contends, promotes insider contracts. As a former Senate staffer who has worked extensively on Congressional technology, he knows the chamber’s unique demands. But he didn’t know where to find the procurement announcement, and he ultimately missed the deadline.

“In the House, they at least provide you a point of entry. You may not be able to open that door, but at least you can knock,” he said. “In the Senate, there’s no door.”

Unlike the House, the Senate provides no information on procurement opportunities on its Web site, Senate.gov. Instead, it posts them exclusively on fbo.gov, a popular Web site for government procurement announcements. Of the 33 posted in the past year, 10 were for sources sought, a preliminary announcement giving companies a couple of weeks to send over basic information. Senate officials then send the full request for proposal to only a few out of those companies that meet the general requirements.

Most of the postings are about technology-related services, reflecting the ongoing efforts in the Senate to find solutions on how to handle — and capitalize on — the use of computers for every legislative function.

A spokeswoman for the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms office, which handles the contracts, said officials are confident the fbo.gov postings are sufficient for attracting new and small businesses. The site, she said, is “widely recognized.”

“While we may consider posting a link to the fbo site on the Senate website, we will not post duplicate procurement notices on a second site,” she said in an e-mail. “We believe that posting on this site allows us to contact a broad group of government contractors.”

Nevertheless, the Senate currently relies on only a few big companies to handle its IT systems. Lockheed Martin, for example, enjoys a large share of the Senate — and House — IT contracts.

Relying on the same IT companies is a “familiar problem” throughout government, said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which focuses on making government more transparent.

That problem, he added, might be exacerbated by the fact that Congress is not hierarchal — there isn’t one place to find contracts, and there is no single entity that provides “best practices.” The House and Senate each have different administrative structures, and officials are left with little to guide them.

“Congress suffers from what can be a variety of very different jurisdictions,” Wonderlich said. “It’s harder to set Congress-wide policy than it is to set executive-wide policy.”

The Senate appears to follow the procurement standards of the executive branch. But it also uses somewhat outdated technology for managing tasks such as constituent e-mails or intranet communication. If officials put more effort into attracting new businesses, they might find more cutting-edge solutions, Clark said.

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