Federal Contracting Databases Prone To Errors

The GSA will award a contract in October to re-architect databases rife with inaccuracies, duplications, and poor system capabilities.
Important databases that the government uses to find, register, and analyze federal contractors have long suffered from inaccuracies, duplications, and poor system capabilities, but are finally about to get an overhaul.

The General Services Administration plans to award a fixed-price contract by the end of next month to re-architect eight separate federal acquisition databases that are currently managed by five different agencies and eight different contractors. Multiple contracts will later be awarded to improve and consolidate the underlying systems. According to federal CIO Vivek Kundra, the whole process should take between two and three years, assuming everything goes to plan.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal government spent more than $500 billion in 2008 alone on contracted products and services. Government employees use the acqusition systems to solicit requirements and review and evaluate vendors. Contractors use some of them to register as federal contractors and track what products and services the government is procuring and how to bid for these jobs. Citizens currently have limited access to these systems, but can use them to track some spending.

However, several of these systems have come under attack from internal and external watchdogs in the past several years as difficult to use, inaccessible, and full of untimely and inaccurate information. For example, in one database an important data field was left blank that made it impossible to identify contracts associated with major Department of Homeland Security projects, and, in another, only 31% of contracts had documented performance assessments.

These problems have led to a push in the last few years to overhaul the systems, beginning during the Bush administration with the development of plans in October 2007 for this consolidation into what's being called the Integrated Acquisition Environment. The Office of Management and Budget, through the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Office of E-Government and IT, will drive the initiative and GSA will oversee the contracts and ongoing operations.

The government has already consolidated help desk functions around the systems, but is now about to embark on a wholesale re-architecture of systems that amount to more than a million lines of code, so that sharing data between the systems is "not just copy and paste," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said during testimony to a Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight on Tuesday. Better technology can prevent agencies from submitting incomplete and in some cases, even incorrect data, he said.

However, despite the best laid plans for new policy and technology, concerns remain. "OMB needs to be in charge of setting the table, but if people don't pull up to the table and participate, these databases are not going to work," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., cautioned during the hearing. "They're only as good as the data you put in them. If there's not a culture about the accurate input of data, this is an empty exercise."

At one point, McCaskill showed a convoluted diagram of the governance structure over the Integrated Acquisition Environment as evidence that it might be being managed by too many, or too few hands. "I can't tell who's in charge," she said. Overtaxed acquisition officers at dozens of agencies input data into these systems, and while OMB has a responsibility for their installation and use, it needs to rely on other agencies to make sure data is entered properly.

During the hearing, Kundra repeatedly said that plans for the Integrated Acquisition Environment have undergone a bit of an overhaul since the Obama administration took office, in that, in addition to goals of efficiency and accuracy, the administration sees these databases as another opportunity to increase government transparency by making much of the data available to the public.

However, some companies are concerned that by opening deeper data about contracts up to the public, companies expose trade secrets and intellectual property to the public and themselves to unsubstantiated allegations of wrongdoing, while inconsistent measurement of federal contractors could lead to unfair contract decisions, according to Trey Hodgkins, VP of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica.

That said, Hodgkins freely admitted that the current system can't work, either. "The practical consequence of having outdated, incomplete, or inaccurate data is harm to the government from an unclear picture of bad actors in the contracting community and harm to good contractors whose performance goes unnoticed in evaluations for other work," he said. In fact, he applauded the government's goals of having more consistent data with uniform standards.

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