Murphy: A high cost for public data

On June 14, General Services Administration officials denied my company's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for procurement data that we have received from the government for 16 years. The implications of this denial are far-reaching and troubling.

Senior GSA officials said that because they outsourced the functions of the Federal Procurement Data Center to a private firm, Global Computer Enterprises (GCE) Inc., last year, that firm "owns and operates" the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG), as the system is now called. As a result, the officials maintain, they are no longer required to respond to public requests for this information.

The most troubling aspect of this FOIA denial is that GSA officials are using the A-76 outsourcing program to insulate the agency and the taxpayer-funded procurement data center from public scrutiny. Their reasoning means, by extension, that any federal agency could insulate operations and data from the public simply by outsourcing important agency functions to private vendors. These actions erode the FOIA statute and the U.S. tradition of open government.

Legislation passed in 1988 explicitly authorized GSA officials to house the data center and collect and disseminate procurement information. They deeded their congressional mandate to a private company, and thus they are in violation of the law. Congress is therefore dependent on procurement data terms dictated by the vendor, an entity over which lawmakers exercise no direct control. Since when do unelected agency officials and private vendors dictate terms to Congress?

GSA officials argue that new agency contract writing systems, which submit data directly to FPDS, absolve them of responsibility to fulfill public requests for procurement information. In the FOIA denial, they claimed, "Under FPDS-NG, GSA no longer collects this data from federal agencies. This data is provided directly to [GCE], the company that owns and operates the FPDS-NG. Thus, the incoming data is not an agency record of GSA."

Yet, an agency that directly controls the establishment of contract requirements ranging from FPDS-NG data schemas to measures of data quality, system performance and vendor compliance cannot deny it is also in control of the data. GSA, not the vendor, is the data's owner and primarily responsible for fulfilling public requests for procurement information. If GSA is not in control of FPDS-NG implementation, the project is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars.

With ownership of the data center in private hands, large sums of money emerge as a key factor governing access to the data. After negotiating a 50-50 split of FPDS-NG reporting revenues, GSA officials told company officials to charge as much as they liked for data reports. In an April meeting, GCE executives proposed that frequent users of the data such as my company should pay thousands of dollars. Last year, the data was free, and before that it was available for a nominal annual charge.

Although GCE officials have said that cost recovery will guide what they charge, the schedule of recoverable costs has not been published. With the company holding a virtual monopoly on data dissemination and GSA officials under pressure to identify new revenue sources for e-government initiatives, no competitive market forces will keep the price of procurement data down in the long run.

Access to the limited amount of data that has been reported so far is being tightly controlled and parceled out on GCE's terms. Officials said the GSA contract requires them to disseminate data only in reports of their design and in amounts of their choosing, subject to agency officials' approval of a yet-to-be-released data dissemination plan. This will only partially satisfy the public's need for unique data compilations, database enhancements and innovative delivery systems that have been available for years in affordable, off-the-shelf applications from other commercial firms. A GSA-backed monopoly will only stifle innovation, competition and access.

Under these new terms of operation, opportunities for conflicts of interest abound. For instance, GSA's FPDS program office promotes the concept of forming partnerships with the FPDS-NG vendor, yet the terms of these partnerships are undefined. With FPDS-NG in private hands, the vendor can easily manipulate terms of data access from client to client. Will the company accept advertising or offer Web site sponsorships and preferential access to Gold Partners, for example?

And what if GCE officials view a potential data client suspiciously? Recently, an investigative reporter from Mother Jones magazine seeking a unique data compilation was quizzed by company officials about how the reporter intended to use the information. The reporter was then told he could meet with GCE officials in two weeks to discuss his requirement in person.

Earlier this year, my company waited five months for a meeting with GCE officials to discuss technical data access issues. This delay for time-sensitive material is unreasonable. Furthermore, during this period, we were warned by the FPDS administrator not to step out of line or we would jeopardize our company's chances of forming a partnership with GSA's vendor.

The outsourcing train has run off the tracks at GSA.

The intent of the procurement reforms of the 1990s and the

E-Government Act of 2002 was to make government more responsive and transparent to the taxpayers, but at GSA, the opposite is true.

To correct this, GSA officials need to acknowledge established lines of administrative accountability and take steps to ensure that the needs of all taxpayers seeking critical government financial information are fully served in an efficient, consistent and timely manner.

For its part, Congress needs to enforce the law that mandated FPDC. If not, Congress risks eroding its authority throughout government whenever agencies choose to delegate their statutory obligations to private firms.

Murphy is president of Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., a Fairfax, Va., market research firm.

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