GSA to make new procurement database widely accessible
Critics see contractor’s role in administering the database as problematic.
Citizens will have free access to most information collected and stored in a recently overhauled central database of government procurement records, General Services Administration officials announced Wednesday.
Reports generated from the Federal Procurement Data System - Next Generation will be available at no cost, and citizens can also submit specialized queries, said David Drabkin, GSA's deputy chief acquisition officer and senior procurement executive. Organizations or citizens wishing to access the raw data will need to pay a one-time fee of $2,500 to cover the cost of connecting to the system.
FPDS-NG debuted last October and is designed to replace the 26-year-old FPDS system, which tracks the government's purchases. GSA officials expect the modernized repository to enhance the quality and timeliness of procurement data.
Fiscal 2004 reports generated using the new system should be ready by the end of the calendar year, Drabkin said. In previous years, GSA has published the reports "anywhere from April to July," he said.
The FPDS-NG Web site does not yet show fiscal 2003 reports, but 40 of them will be posted in about three weeks, Drabkin added. Late submission of data and "the reduction in the FPDS staff as part of the competitive sourcing initiative prevented us from completing all reports in a more timely fashion," he said.
GSA allowed a year for agencies to shift to the new system, and all agencies will switch over by fiscal 2005, according to Drabkin. Data generated from the new system will be more reliable because most will travel directly from agencies' computerized contract writing systems to the central database in a "machine-to-machine" transaction, eliminating the possibility for human error, he said.
The Government Accountability Office has long harbored concerns over the accuracy of information in FPDS. In reports dating back to at least 1980, the congressional audit agency has pointed to significant errors. In a December 2003 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten, William Woods, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management, attributed the brunt of the problems to "data entry mistakes by agency contracting personnel."
"When we discussed these problems with agency officials during the course of our reviews, they cited a lack of training, high personnel turnover, the complexity of the agency systems, and frequent changes to FPDS data entry requirements as reasons for the errors," Woods wrote. FPDS-NG will eliminate much of the need for manual data entry, likely cutting down on mistakes, Woods said in the letter.
But while the new system will be more accurate and will be available largely for free, GSA's May 2003 decision to contract out development and maintenance of the database to Global Computer Enterprises, a technology services company based in Reston, Va., has generated controversy. The contract is worth at least $24 million and lasts up to seven years.
Critics worry that the contractor might restrict access to information. "The change has greatly reduced the public accountability of government contracting," said Charles Tiefer, a professor of government contracting law at the University of Baltimore and author of the recently published Veering Right (University of California Press, 2004), a book arguing that government increasingly is closed to the public.
An open database allows companies and interested citizens to act as watchdogs and to protest when contracts are "awarded in a way that's faulty or altogether noncompetitive," Tiefer said. "We expect the frustrated potential competitors to find out about the opportunities they missed and protest. That's good for them, maybe, and definitely good for the public."
Drabkin said all the data will be available, though sometimes GSA might delay the release of some information for security reasons. GSA will exercise strong oversight of the contractor, he added. GSA has not entered into any revenue-sharing agreement with the contractor, according to Drabkin, and is working closely with contract employees. "We literally work with them on a daily basis," he said.
In theory, the new database will provide better information and generate wider interest in procurement statistics, said Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Publishers, a Fairfax, Va.,-based market research company that analyzes GSA's information for clients. Eagle Eye compiles an annual list of the top 200 contractors for Government Executive, using data in GSA's central repository.
The one-time fee for hooking up to FPDS-NG sounds reasonable, Murphy said. But he said he remains cautious in his praise of the new system, because he has not yet been assured full access. GSA has denied two Freedom of Information Act requests for FPDS-NG statistics filed by Eagle Eye earlier this year, claiming that Global Computer Enterprises now is in control of the data, Murphy said.
The research company has filed an appeal at GSA, and hasn't heard back. Murphy said he sees GSA's latest announcement and comments to the press indicating control over the data as a good sign. "This is apparently a new interpretation and the correct interpretation of the laws regarding agency data dissemination," he said.
But Tiefer said he doubts GSA will exercise the level of oversight needed to ensure that research companies and other interested parties have full access. Lawmakers, he said, should hold hearings to investigate Global Computer Enterprises' role in administering the database.
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