Senator urges caution in consolidating contracting databases

A key senator on Tuesday encouraged the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget to proceed with care as they consolidate and improve the federal government's numerous contracting databases.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, said during a hearing it will be crucial early on to conduct oversight of a contract to design a new enterprise architecture to move eight disparate databases under a single platform where services are shared.

"Now is the time for us to look forward, to ask tough questions before the government gets embroiled in a costly contract that may not be the best way forward," McCaskill said.

The General Services Administration still is reviewing bids for the massive Architecture and Operations Contract Support agreement, which originally was scheduled to be awarded by the end of September, but now is due by the end of October. The new setup is designed to consolidate electronic and paper systems that have been brought under the umbrella of the GSA-run Integrated Acquisition Environment but remain separate databases with unique data elements, reporting capabilities, user accounts and security certifications. They also are maintained by separate contractors. McCaskill noted that the contract does not include improvements to the underlying database systems. The government, however, will award future contracts to "improve and enhance the software throughout the life of the AOCS contract," she said.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra said that while the Integrated Acquisition Environment was a tremendous improvement, the fact that each of the eight systems was originally developed independently, used different software and operated on different hardware platforms run by different contractors created major challenges.

"In this complex stove-piped environment, it was difficult to respond to policy or technology changes in timely manner," Kundra said.

He added these limitations led to the decision to rethink and consolidate the Integrated Acquisition Environment, which is made up of Central Contractor Registration, the Federal Register, the Excluded Parties List System, the Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System, Federal Business Opportunities, the Federal Procurement Data System, the Online Representations and Certifications Application, and Wage Determination Online.

While witnesses from the Government Accountability Office, the nonprofit OMB Watch and the industry group TechAmerica weighed in on how to improve databases, they had not been aware of the contract to move them under a single platform until they started preparing for the hearing. McCaskill called this "scary" and expressed concern that it could indicate a lack of end-user engagement by GSA.

"IT 101 is you better talk to the people who are going to use the system … instead of just having people design it in a vacuum," McCaskill said. "You are three major end users and there is no bigger and more important end user of database information in government than GAO. You can't do your work in a meaningful, effective and efficient way if the databases are not reliable and user-friendly."

William Woods, director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, said part of what makes improving contracting databases so difficult is each system depends on the efforts of multiple agencies. He cited the Past Performance Information Retrieval System as an example where one agency sets the policy, another is responsible for maintaining the system, a third funds it and numerous others enter the actual data.

"It is therefore important not only to correctly diagnose the problems with contracting data systems, but also to develop solutions that can be implemented by the appropriate responsible agencies," Woods said.

Kundra said the integrated platform will help government improve data quality, simplify access to acquisition data and make contracting systems more user-friendly, but McCaskill warned of getting distracted from the primary goal of the reforms -- better information.

"If you build an egg carton and just move the eggs without busting the eggs and improving the data … and the ability to talk to one another, I don't know what we'll have accomplished," McCaskill said.

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