Lawmakers on Thursday praised passage of legislation that would create a new, user-friendly search engine for federal grants and contracts, but some observers questioned whether the new system would be able to meaningfully integrate existing systems and overcome long-standing problems with data quality and timeliness.
At a press conference, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., spoke alongside House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management Clay Johnson to laud a bipartisan push that led to votes in both chambers Wednesday evening.
"I think the strong message of this legislation is that whatever it is we do, we have to be answerable to the folks back home," Obama said. "And we can't be answerable to the folks back home if they don't understand how their money's being spent."
Coburn described the bill's passage as "a perfect storm," as he and Obama lauded advocacy from a range of interest groups across the political spectrum that lent momentum.
Questioned on how OMB, charged with implementing the legislation, would address concerns about data quality in the federal grant and contract databases that are expected to feed data to the new search tool, Johnson said he was confident the data would be clean by January 2008, when the legislation calls for the search engine to go live.
"There are already, [and] have been for the past year plus, efforts under way to improve the quality of [the Federal Procurement Data System] and we feel comfortable that we will be where we want to be and need to be, a year from now," Johnson said. "We will not be going public with information that's not worthy of the public."
Johnson said OMB would play a coordinating role in implementing the legislation. "The primary responsibility and the work to be done [in ensuring data quality] is by the agencies," he said. OMB will focus on setting standards and making sure schedules are met. Johnson said a plan for the system, called for in January 2007, would include milestones and metrics for success, and that Karen Evans, who leads OMB's e-government programs, would be closely involved with the system.
OMB Watch, a government watchdog group, is wrapping up development of a search tool that largely mirrors the one required by the legislation. Executive Director Gary Bass said the group's tool, which relies on federal contract and grant data gathered and scrubbed by Fairfax, Va.-based Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., was built for less than $100,000 and will go live on Oct. 10.
"Everything in the bill, we've done," Bass said. "Obviously we're cheaper than everybody else, but this is not a multi-million dollar extravaganza. This should be done quickly, efficiently and [should be] responsive to the users so the public can get to this information."
But Bass acknowledged that there were numerous areas in which data was inaccurate or incomplete, and others where he would expect OMB to do better at meeting some standards set by the legislation, such as timeliness. For example, he said, the grants database does not yet include -- so OMB Watch's search cannot retrieve -- data for the last quarter of fiscal 2005, which ended last September.
An industry expert who requested anonymity expressed reservations about the new search tool.
He said a business case had not been made for the system, and consideration had not been given to expanding upon existing systems to integrate additional data, rather than starting a new system from scratch.
He pointed to the FPDS-Next Generation, the federal contracts database, as an example of a similar system that had gone millions of dollars over budget in part because of a failure to properly understand users' requirements.
"The question is how you bring this together, and it's much more complex than the $5 million" that the Congressional Budget Office estimated the system would cost in 2008, he said.
CBO allowed $4 million in 2007, $5 million in 2008 and $2 million annually thereafter for upkeep of the system. The industry observer said a system that meets the bill's description would more likely cost "tens or hundreds of millions of dollars."
The observer cited several data-related challenges that the search engine would have to overcome. He said harmonization of data among the three databases that would serve as the system's backbone -- FPDS-NG, the Federal Assistance Award Data System and Grants.gov -- would take significant work to make different data fields compatible within a single search.
He said the existing contracts database has limitations in how users enter data on the items purchased. For example, the system allows only a single item code per purchase. For large purchases of several services, or for an item and associated installation and ongoing maintenance, the database includes only one code to encapsulate the entire contract.
Additionally, he said the contracts database does not include data on performance location and does not necessarily include detailed information on the funding source, two data fields named in the new legislation. He said interagency contracts, especially, lack full data descriptions in the current system.
The observer said in one case of Defense Department contracts that he had seen sampled, 60 percent of the data was miscoded for the commodity being purchased; he said 30 percent to 40 percent error rates were not unusual among agencies.
The database bill makes no provisions for addressing challenges such as these, and while concerns have been raised numerous times in the past about the quality of the contracts database, agencies have not found the funding or willpower to address them. Some champions of the new search system have said increased visibility would lead to pressure for improvement by agencies.
The observer advised that OMB should take the next two or three months to assess technical and user requirements, and come up with an accurate cost for the search system, so Congress can realistically assess its willingness to pay for it. Otherwise, "We may end up starting something that there's no funding for, and it will be another failed initiative."
But OMB's Johnson remained optimistic. "Our goal is to do what the bill calls for, and if we run into an unexpected something-or-other we'll address that then," he said. "But for right now, our commitment, challenge and focus is to do by January 2008 what the bill calls for."