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Atwater hopes to reform flawed contracting process by exposing it to sunlight

Florida will spend $47 billion this year hiring outsiders to provide goods and services for the state but hundreds of the contractors will not be required to show they provided services they agreed to and their documentation will be rife with errors.

Those are the conclusions of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater after a sample audit of the 24,000 state contracts at 33 different agencies found that 35 percent were flawed.

At stake, he said: "Hundreds of millions of dollars" of the state's $70 billion budget, 67 percent of which is outsourced. 

On Wednesday, Atwater unveiled a new web site that details most of the state's contracts so the public can determine if they are being held accountable for the services they are offering. The goal, he said, is to put the heat on the flawed contracting system by turning the public into watchdogs and inviting more competitors to the table.

The hope is "this improves accountability because there's no place to hide," Atwater said at a news conference in Tallahassee. "We have 19 million people...I wouldn't mind if we had 19 million auditors."

His biggest challenge, he said, will be the lobbying corps. For years, companies -- big and small, non-profit and public -- hired legions of lobbyists to use political influence and cozy relationships to give them the strategic advantage in the contracting process.

"I know what everybody wants and they don’t want accountability and they don’t want to be measured,'' said Atwater, a former Senate president who watched as his attempt strengthen his office's oversight into contracting was squelched by the Legislature last session. 

The result, Atwater said, is a patchwork quilt of standards in which some agencies adhere to strict performance measures while others are so loose they barely produce anything more than a work plan and an invoice.

"This has to stop,'' Atwater said. "That just adds up.''

A series of recent stories in The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times found that the Legislature ordered the Department of Juvenile Justice to refrain from putting a contract up for bid, and the governor's staff intervened in a contract for mapping broadband internet services in Florida. Senate president Mike Haridopolos also allowed his former chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, to steer two no-bid contracts to friends.

Atwater said the Legislature is required to provide data to the web site, just like state agencies, "so we'll see,'' he said.

Another challenge is the $41 billion in contracts awarded for services paid for with federal money or other outside contributions. Based on the audit of 2 percent of the 24,000 contracts in the CFO's tracking system, there was a 35 percent error rate, Atwater said and grant contracts often included the fewest performance measures and highest error rates of any contracts.

Often those contracts are awarded to companies providing a federally-subsidized entitlement program, such as medical research, housing assistance for the homeless.

The online tool, called Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System or FACTS, was ordered to be developed by the 2011 Florida Legislature as part of the Department of Financial Services budget transparency program, which is run by Atwater. Atwater's office spent the last year working with 33 state agencies and training officials to work with the system.

Contracts will be posted on the web site within 30 days of being signed by the agency. The web site, however, will not include details about the circumstances surrounding the contract and whether it was competitively bid.

Atwater acknowledged the web site, while a "signficant step forward," was far from complete. He tried and failed last session to get authority over the state's contracting process transferred from the governor's Department of Management Services to his agency -- a feud incoming Senate President Don Gaetz called a "turf battle" with the govenror's office.

Atwater said he will return to the Legislature this year to ask for additional oversight  over training of agency contract negotiators and more consistent contracting standards.

He is also urging every agency to follow his example to provide a PDF image of each contract it has signed, so the public can determine whether the agency's description of it is accurate. His has ordered the Department of Financial Services to provide that information.

He said the Legislature should also ask agencies to come up with a consistent standard for when it is permissible to keep a contract confidential. 

Officials from Tallahassee-based watchdog groups, including TaxWatch, Integrity Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, attended Atwater's press conference and commended the web site.

"We applaud you today. This is a huge step,'' said Dan Krasner, director of Integrity Florida. He then suggested Atwater create a social media button to allow the public to link directly to the site.

"That's a great idea,'' Atwater replied.