Privatization, managed competition and outsourcing are all parts of the same elephant: the elephant of public contracting. Politicians, wannabe politicians and lobbyists riding this elephant get generous donations, and they promise to adorn it with gold. Seminars and workshops are organized for public servants on “How to keep the elephant happy.” And its insatiable appetite satisfied through ever-increasing contracts, accountable to no-one.

According to a recent article in the USA Today regarding defense contractors in Iraq:

They operate with little or no supervision, accountable only to the firms employing them.

In our blissful city, far away from Baghdad, San Diegans are beginning to hear the trampling sound of an elephant gone wild. The similarities are stark: contractors over-billing the city by millions, contractors violating the city’s laws, and contractors failing to submit compliance reports. Coupled with the indifference of a shrinking staff, cutting back on monitoring and compliance:

Every single law does not need a team of civil service employees attached to it, 24-7

— (Fred Sainz, spokesperson to Mayor Jerry Sanders, 07/24/2007)

The elephant of public contracting has no mahout. The city of San Diego keeps no count of the number of private contracts it has (I guess it’s close to 3,000). It does not compile a list of consultants, contractors and suppliers in the budget. And the costs of supplies and services have shot up through the roof (29 percent between FY 07-08). This currently represents almost half ($1.4 billion) the city’s overall budget ($2.8 billion), and we have no clue as to what is in this.

The city’s elephant is quite opaque. Private contractors are not subject to the Public Records Request Act, and other transparency laws that city employees are subject to. We do not know the breakup of contracts by function, and nor do we know how it is going to change under the mayor’s reform measures.

We also do not know whether the level of services is being maintained, since we do not do performance auditing of contracts. We do not have a public discussion of which functions performed by private contractors are actually necessary and which are merely wasteful expenditures. (I recently saw a bid from the city requesting a PR firm to get public input on which potholes to fill!)

This reminds me of an Indian tale of a group of blind men trying to examine an elephant.

Each of them touches a different part of the body, and comes to a different conclusion on what the elephant is. With little oversight and monitoring, San Diegans need to wonder what is the shape of the billion-dollar elephant?


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