• A good starting point to understand how and why contractors cost much more than civil service workers are the research papers of Professor Paul C. Light, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University, including this handy chart (scroll to the end) titled, in part, “The True Size of Government”—also the title of Light’s terrific book published in 1999.

• An excellent primer on how budgets are made, demystifying the sausage-making in government spending, is The Politics of Public Budgeting: Getting and Spending, Borrowing and Balancing, 6th Edition, by Irene S. Rubin, professor emeriti at Northern Illinois University. (Disclosure: I blurbed one of her budget books.)

• A list of the biggest contractors is available at Government Executive magazine.

• An enormous—and unwieldy, but detail-rich—database that generates spreadsheets of government contractors is at usaspending.gov, an official federal government website.

• Another place to look for news that has yet to break is performance reports. When a government contract is finished, the relevant federal agency often requires a review of what was done. Many such reports are slapdash— some that I have read in the past were boilerplate done so cheaply you could see the lines left by cut-and-paste jobs run through a photocopier—but that fact can be valuable for reporters. File a Freedom of Information Act request with the federal agency in question.

Inspector general reports are also a valuable source for critical looks at contractor performance. A list of state inspectors general can be found here, and federal inspectors general here.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.