Four interagency databases designed to warn contracting officers about a company’s past performance are riddled with problems that can become expensive agency boondoggles, a senator declared at an oversight hearing Thursday.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., blasted as “shockingly old and clunky” the databases pioneered by the Navy and now administered governmentwide by the General Services Administration, calling for more complete information on whether contractors, for example, have been suspended and debarred.
She criticized the Office of Management and Budget for not sending a witness to a hearing she held as chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs contracting subcommittee. McCaskill also said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “could have avoided a black eye” for the “very public failure” of the rollout of the Healthcare.gov website last fall had it been able to discover more on the past performance of the contractor CGI Federal.
Since passage of the 2002 E-Government Act, agencies have sought to consolidate and centralize online data on contractors’ performance history including contract terminations, criminal acts and administrative adjudications. The chief databases that managers may consult include the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS), the Federal Awardee Performance Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) and the System for Award Management.
The Mechanicsburg, Pa.,-based Naval Sea Logistics Center, because of its early experience in such databases, runs a help desk available to thousands of agency officers and contractors. But GSA is in charge of the governmentwide effort to “evolve 10 systems into a user-centric open source” to save money and create efficiencies, testified Kevin Youel Page, GSA’s assistant commissioner for integrated award environment. His team is working with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to achieve consolidation by 2018, with interim improvements along the way, he said.
Yet McCaskill’s staff found that some of the databases “had very little information,” were usable only in Internet Explorer, contained “self-reported contractor data not verified by the agency” and are built around DUNS numbers, the industrial categorization system the government rents from Dun and Bradstreet “at substantial cost,” the senator said. Showing the hearing room a screen shot of a database search for Lockheed Martin, she said the results showed 80 entries, “riddled with confusing names and typos, with variations of names, some quite silly,” that make it “impossible for a contract officer to draw conclusions” or grasp the complicated corporate relationships.
McCaskill zeroed in on BP, whose subsidiaries’ past suspensions were known to the government before the calamitous 2010 Gulf oil spill but were not handily accessible on the databases. CGI Federal, she added, had acquired the staff of another contractor with a problematic record in the run-up to winning the HHS contract to build the Affordable Care Act federal insurance exchange website. But just a week before the Government Accountability Office in June 2013 warned that the website might not be ready by its Oct. 1 deadline, CGI Federal was highly rated on the databases.
There’s some progress on improving the databases, McCaskill said, “but it needs a lot of oversight, and it sounds like it’s stuck. At some point you have to pull the Band-Aid” from the legacy systems still in use, she added. “There’s a reluctance of the people evaluating the companies to put negative information on paper.”
Some of the past information is deemed too sensitive for public distribution, the witnesses noted. McCaskill called such restrictions “arbitrary.”
Page said GSA’s job is “to provide the raw material, but agencies have their own management structure” and must decide what aspects of past performance are relevant in awarding a new contract. He said GSA’s team is working on new analytics that will allow contracting officers more capacity for customizing their inquiries into such issues as the “parent and child management entities.” But he warned of “some trepidation because corporate entities can be complicated.”
In her opening statement, McCaskill lamented the absence of invited witness Beth Cobert, the Obama administration’s deputy budget director for management, for whom she had already once rescheduled the hearing. “It’s either a lack of interest in contractor performance or willful disregard of Congress and legislative oversight,” she said.
Cobert missed Thursday’s hearing because she was focused on the release of President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget, “as we made clear with the subcommittee,” said OMB spokesman Frank Benenati by email. “The administration believes strong financial and contracting oversight is critical, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this issue. Deputy Director Cobert will also address this commitment when she testifies before the full committee next week.”