Agencies Rely on Contractor Tool to Spot Procurement Errors

PotomacWave’s FedDataCheck automates quality review for contracting officers.

Does federal contract award data need a few good proofreaders?

According to Jeff Sopko, executive vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based PotomacWave consulting firm, about 20 percent to 30 percent of records in the government’s procurement database contain errors. “They stem from frequent changes in policy and procedures that take time to be implemented in source contract writing, as well as human errors,” he said. “The errors get pushed from the contract writing system to [the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation] with few validation checks.”

To address that problem, PotomacWave in 2012 created a software tool called FedDataCheck. So far, contracting officers at five agencies subscribe to the tool. “Our goal is to identify and correct the errors before they’re used in downstream reporting” by such stakeholders as the Small Business Administration, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the Office of Management and Budget, Congress and news media researchers. “We all want the data to be high-integrity,” Sopko said.

Most in government and industry agree that agency public data inaccuracy is a problem that contributes to many governmentwide challenges, including improper payments. In an August survey of federal information technology system users by the research firm MeriTalk, case workers estimated that as many as 11 percent of beneficiary lists for Social Security and Medicare are not eligible for benefits. Forty-seven percent of information technology managers responding said they wanted better IT system integration in order to cross-check data.

“We’re trying to leverage the government’s open data initiative to focus on the Federal Procurement Data Base-Next Generation [system] to analyze data integrity in the real-time work flow, so that the acquisition workforce can spend more time on data analysis rather than data correction,” says Sopko, a former technology operations manager who has 20 years of federal contracting experience.

FDPS-NG is a transactional database built on input from the government’s contract writing systems that captures and publishes summary level data—the type and dollar value of each federal award above $3,000 and subsequent modifications. It does not include profiles of the companies winning the contracts.

The government’s own efforts to assure its accuracy include a requirement from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy that the General Services Administration collect an annual certification from each agency attesting to the completeness and accuracy of their data contained in the system.

The proofreading tool devised by the woman-owned PotomacWave has won subscribers at the Veterans Affairs, Energy, Treasury, Education and Health and Human Services departments, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has undertaken a three-month trial. The company also performs similar work at the Homeland Security Department.

Veterans Affairs has used FedDataCheck “for the past 2 years in assessing an estimated 2 million reportable actions totaling $37 billion,” Henry Huntley, a spokesman in VA’s  Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, told Government Executive. “Their tool provides automated monitoring of FPDS-NG data quality, which has served to improve the department’s reporting accuracy.”

According to PotomacWave’s Vice President of Business Intelligence Products Bob Harford, the program executes about 100 checks for each contract in the system, among them the award’s small business designation, signed contract date and duration, and whether the award was competitive. FedDataCheck will flag awards for which some data entries raise questions. The software will then link to other records such as the relevant section of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, whether the company qualifies for small business set-asides and whether sole-sourcing in this case is permissible.

“The subscribing contracting officer will get an email alert so he can click and drill into FPDS-NG,” Harford explained. If the rules did not require the agency to, say, obtain the cost of pricing data before letting the contract, the requisite field in the entry may say, “not obtained, waived.” But “in all likelihood it should have said `not required,’ ” Harford said. “The contracting officer may have misunderstood the regulation.”

What does the need for such a product say about the competence of agency contracting shops? The White House Office of Management and Budget declined to comment.

But the concept represents a mixed bag for Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association. “The contract writing systems automatically send information in, and there could be flaws in design or miscoding, which is performed by contracting officers and clerks,” he said. “It’s always good to have someone checking your facts. But I would be concerned that if someone’s going to have to proofread the copy, how hard would it be to make sure it’s right in the first place? That’s the government’s responsibility.”

Fischetti admires the “ingenuity” of the PotomacWave product, and agrees that private consultants can add value to government efforts. “But to the extent a firm became the sole checker of those facts, that would create another problem with private firms that want to prove their value performing a function that at the end of the day is inherently governmental,” he said.

Even so, FedDataCheck could be a great tool at a time when government is losing staff, he added, and if it could help with analysis of such perennial contracting questions as whether there is harm done by lowest-price, technically acceptable contracts.

Sopko cautioned that his company does not “validate the quality of work performed or of the goods and services. We simply validate whether data records about contract awards or modifications are accurate.” He does not regard processing data as inherently governmental.

So far, PotomacWave had encountered no competition for FedDataCheck, he said. “There is a need for the tool because government historically has been tackling this problem by throwing labor and personnel at it, as opposed to finding an automated solution.”

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