Government Needs More Oversight And Transparency

Thursday, January 27, 2022

It is a disturbing trend to hire outside consultants or independent contractors, with little direct oversight, to perform government jobs, whether nationally or statewide. The running joke is, “if you have an out-of-state license plate on your car and drive by slowly at the Tennessee Department of Education, they will throw a contract in your car, and you too can be an education consultant.” Now that is probably not very accurate or fair, but then again, I have a Tennessee tag on my car and I have been known to drive a little fast. 

It is likely that the majority of consultants and contractors follow our state laws and maintain the necessary integrity. However, all Tennesseans should be somewhat concerned by a contracting process if it has little or no accountability. We must also do a better job of tracking performance data. Especially when we are using tax dollars in Tennessee to contract with people outside the state. Oversight is critical to making sure taxpayers are getting what they are paying for at every level of government.

Investigative reporter Phil Williams examined how the state was spending tax dollars during the COVID pandemic. His investigation focused on tax dollars going to companies without competition, some of whom were politically connected. It is worth noting how vendors are selected for awards also can improve or hamper outcomes.

In the sausage factory where so much of government business is done, corruption and back-room deals are probably not as prevalent as one might think, but we must examine everything carefully. Mr. Williams pointed out: “Anytime there is no-bid spending, whether it's a Republican administration or a Democratic administration, we want to know where that money is going." That should be the case for all of us who demand accountability in government.

Transparency and accountability are always keys to good government. We need more transparency at every level of government to limit the possibility of corruption and guarantee fiscal responsibility. The best protection against government largesse is an engaged and informed electorate. Newspapers, TV, radio, and social media can report on government, but for particularly important issues, there is no substitute for direct answers.

Phil Williams recounts, "When you are e-mailing with PR professionals they will give you statements that don't answer the questions. At some point, you have to be able to question a human being, question the person in charge." So, he posed questions directly to Governor Bill Lee and got answers to the specific questions, not political spin.  They should have taken that approach initially.   

Government leaders have known for decades that federal and state contracts are poorly tracked and badly managed. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “no government-wide system exists to track the number of interagency contracts and thus poor oversight hampers the federal government’s ability to leverage its vast purchasing power.”

The GAO also found a “significant potential for duplication and inefficiencies”. They pointed out that poor management of these contracts results in waste of taxpayer dollars and a woeful lack of transparency, limiting the ability to determine how capable contracts meet intended needs. In the name of reducing the size of government, we have increased the cost of government, and escalated an unelected system of unaccountable bureaucrats.

It is not limited to the Federal or State government either, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) received immense and valid criticism for an $18 million no-bid contract they gave to a private arm of Meharry Medical College. According to Mainstreet Nashville, MNPS apparently “doesn’t have any detailed documentation of expenses it was billed.” We must address any real or perceived weaknesses in our capacity to oversee third-party contracts and avoid any conflicts of interest at every level of government. 

In education, for example at the state level, we should push legislation that a future Commissioner of Education goes through legislative approval. We should require the state to create an annual strategic plan in K-12 education, just like LEA’s currently do. A plan shows where we are at and presents a road map of where we are heading. The commissioner should be required to present this annual plan for the state publicly to the state board and in legislative committees, so we are all heading in the same direction with similar goals and objectives, allowing us to make needed changes in real-time.

In addition, appointments to the State Board of Education should also come not only from the governor but also from the General Assembly. It helps create additional transparency in the process. More importantly, any vendor, consultant, or contractor in Tennessee should adhere to Tennessee laws, including open records laws, and preference should be given to people who reside within Tennessee.

All speculation aside, nobody has ever found any criminal misconduct in how our state contracts with vendors, thus far. Chances are they may never find wrongdoing. We also do not convict people based on public opinion or speculation. Nevertheless, every level of government needs to take notice and ensure that more oversight and transparency is put in place on grants, awards, contracts, and public tax dollar spending. It is a smart public policy.

JC Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee


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