The General Services Administration on Monday announced plans to overhaul its database of private companies barred from federal work due to misconduct.
Federal agencies can suspend or debar contractors for various types of misconduct, including fraud, embezzlement and forgery. Suspension is temporary, while debarment can last three years or longer. GSA maintains an "excluded parties" database listing suspended or debarred companies.
But advocacy groups and some lawmakers say the list is not very useful to agencies because it lacks historical information on administrative or court proceedings against companies and any resulting suspensions or debarments. The database is also difficult to navigate, according to critics.
Under regulations proposed in the Dec. 1 Federal Register, agencies would enter information about suspended or debarred contractors directly onto the list, which GSA maintains. This would cut down on inaccuracies, since the data would not travel through as many hands, and would also ensure that the database contains more timely information, GSA officials said.
Currently it takes up to seven days for information from some agencies to be reflected on the list, according to GSA spokeswoman Mary Alice Johnson. The data travels by mail in some cases, and once it reaches GSA, it sits in a queue until an employee there has a chance to enter it.
About 30 agencies, including the Justice, Education, Transportation and State departments and the Army, Air Force and Defense Logistics Agency, already enter data directly into GSA's excluded parties list, Johnson said. But the draft regulations would make the practice mandatory at all agencies.
In addition, the proposed changes would increase the variety of data GSA shares with agencies, and would make the database more user-friendly. Agencies would be able to search GSA's files by entering in a contractor's name or the Social Security number of an individual bidding on government work.
The revamped excluded parties list also would include information about contractors' past exclusions from government work, Johnson said. Currently, procurement workers must file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain this data, according to the Federal Register notice.
These changes address some concerns expressed by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit watchdog group, about the excluded parties list. POGO, which maintains its own database to track lawsuits initiated against large contractors, contends that without access to reliable and thorough information on contractor misconduct, agencies cannot make informed decisions when awarding work to private companies.
The proposed changes would represent an improvement over the current system because they streamline the process of updating the database, make it more user-friendly, and give agencies access to information on companies' past wrongdoings, said Danielle Brian, POGO's executive director.
But "tinkering" with the excluded parties list will not address some of the larger problems with the government's suspension and debarment system, Brian said. "The next step is to be able to have suspension and debarment used more regularly for anything other than mom-and-pop shops," she said. POGO studies have shown that large contractors are rarely banned from government work despite repeated misconduct.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., also has criticized the excluded parties list, and in July, she introduced the 2003 Contractors Accountability Act (H.R. 2767), which would require GSA to maintain a central database with records dating back five years of any court or administrative proceedings brought against federal contractors, and any resulting debarments or suspensions.
The bill has not made it out of the House Government Reform Committee. Maloney introduced similar legislation previously, most recently as an amendment to the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act (H.R. 1837). In early May, the House Government Reform Committee defeated the amendment by a vote of 22 to 18.
GSA is accepting comments on the proposed suspension and debarment regulations until Jan. 30, 2004. Send comments by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail them to:
General Services Administration, FAR Secretariat (MVA)
1800 F Street N.W., Room 4035
Attn.: Laurie Duarte
Washington, D.C. 20405