That's standard operating procedure. State government, counties, cities and even small-town park boards must open bids and disclose bidders in public under open-records law. It's just good civic hygiene.
Which brings us to Roger Baker, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department's IT maven. He announced at a meeting of the WorldVistA community in Fairfax, Va., last week that the VA intends to launch an open-source development project to upgrade VistA, the VA's electronic health-record system.
For nearly a decade, the WorldVistA folks have been pleading with the VA to make open-source improvements to VistA. They gave Baker a standing ovation. Developed at taxpayer expense, VistA is both a U.S. treasure and an increasingly important global healthcare asset. And yet the VA has let VistA slide.
To his credit, Baker admitted that the VA had failed to keep VistA on the cutting edge of technology. Still, even after a decade of neglect, VistA remains one of the two best health IT systems in the world, Baker allowed.
A proposed custodial agent will run the open-source VistA improvement project. Bidding for the custodial-agent contract closed May 20.
So, how many bidders were there? Who were they? How have they proposed to run the project?
The VA won't say.
Given the importance of VistA to veterans and the potential the system holds for private-sector patients, healthcare organizations and researchers here and around the world, I found it unacceptable that the VA won't release a complete list of those bidders so we'll know who the competition is. I also thought it wrong when told that the VA doesn't plan to release all of the bid documents to the public once the winning bid is awarded, so we can compare proposals.
Why the opacity? That's just the way the feds do business under the Federal Acquisition Regulation, I was told.
In January 2009, President Barack Obama pledged that his administration would be the most open in history. "In the face of doubt," he said, "openness prevails." Frankly, I can't see how anyone can square that promise with the secret bidding process the VA is using to select a custodial agent for the overhaul of VistA, which is shaping up to be a multibillion-dollar health IT project.
Baker, it appears, has been fighting the good fight over the past 18 months as he has shepherded the open-source strategy through the VA bureaucracy and past congressional oversight committees. For that, he should be commended.
But the VA's lack of transparency casts a cloud over this whole procurement effort.
That shouldn't be the case.