Fixing the Next Generation procurement data system

Critics say program needs to be more accurate and user-friendly

Federal Procurement Data System -- Next Generation

Recent criticism of the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) has sparked some of those closely involved to defend the system while acknowledging it needs further improvement.

In a Sept. 27 letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Joshua Bolten, the Government Accountability Office detailed its concerns that the system offers incomplete data because the Defense Department does not yet submit its procurement information through a direct electronic feed and its user interface is difficult.

GAO also questioned whether the system should collect and make data available on interagency contracting, in which one agency uses another agency's contract vehicles. Because of award challenges related to such contract actions, GAO designated interagency contracting as a high-risk area in January 2005.

The General Services Administration controlled procurement data and the system for making it publicly available until 2003 when it awarded a contract to Global Computer Enterprises (GCE) to modernize and manage the system. The system was then renamed FPDS-NG.

David Lucas, a GCE spokesman, said the company is working steadily to improve the system. "Right now we are working hand in hand with DOD," he said. "DOD notwithstanding, there's an overwhelming majority of systems that are [reporting data] in real time. The moment an award is made, it gets sent to us immediately."

In addition, all procurement data from fiscal 2003 to 1979 was migrated before the system went live in October 2003. Since then, system developers have added information, including DOD data, through fiscal 2004.

"What we're going through with DOD, we've gone through already with other agencies," Lucas said.

DOD officials declined to be interviewed but responded to an inquiry with a written statement.

DOD "fully supports the move to the real-time, validated contract reporting environment that should be available with the complete implementation" of FPDS-NG, the statement reads. "DOD continues to work closely with...[GSA], identifying the key DOD requirements that need to be properly in place for a successful, seamless transition to FPDS-NG's machine-to-machine environment."

GCE is also addressing concerns about the system's ease of use and plans to improve the user interface, Lucas said. "The intention is to get this data out," he said.

GAO also criticized GSA for not informing system users of the results of reviews that agencies went through to assess the accuracy of their data. Lack of information fosters a perception that the data may not be accurate, GAO's letter states.

Julie Basile, an Office of Federal Procurement Policy analyst who has been assigned to GSA to work on the system, said part of the problem is that federal contracting officers see feeding data to the system as one more requirement they have to fulfill rather than as something that can help them complete their own duties.

"The way to make this data important is to make it useful to the field," said Basile, who spent 19 years as a contracting officer in the Navy. "If the contracting officer knows that this data has to be right because it will affect some other part of their operation, then it will be right."

However, she said, one major problem that is less easily solved is the system's perception among agencies. The government needs a procurement management system, she said. But because the system is called a data system, people think of it -- and use it -- as a simple data repository and retrieval tool.

People who extract data from the system say that it is difficult to use, and some question the accuracy of the data.

Although the new system is an improvement compared with the old system, it has not met promises of providing higher-quality, more current data, said Tim Yeaney, vice president of Eagle Eye Publishers, a research firm.

"We're seeing [data on] more small purchases, stuff below $25,000, and that's what's fueling the increase in data," said Paul Murphy, Eagle Eye's president. In addition to more data, the firm finds more errors in the data.

Eagle Eye is publishing clean data, he added, but "we're doing triple the amount of data cleanup we used to."

When GSA was directly responsible for presenting the information, Murphy said, "they may not have had great data, but there was a sense of responsibility that whatever they published they had to get right. Now [GCE] feels that if they published what's required, they've fulfilled their contract."

Eagle Eye had also bid on the FPDS-NG contract.

Yeaney said emphasizing rapid reporting may be diminishing data quality.

In the past, contracting officers would report data to other agency officials, and it would be vetted before the agency uploaded it to GSA in a batch file. When the contract writing software simply reports the data, the information is less likely to receive additional scrutiny, he said.

"What you've eliminated is the feeder system," he said. "It was argued that was a source of inefficiency, and I can't dispute that. But there was some error checking."

Yeaney said individual agencies should rigorously check the data before sending it to FPDS-NG. "What is driving us crazy is all of the inconsistencies and incorrectly reported information, and the codes and fields we have to spend days and days cleaning up," he said.

Judith Nelson, director of government contracts at consulting firm EZGSA, agreed with GAO's assessment that the system is difficult to use. During a recent attempt to find out which companies had received Army Corps of Engineers contracts for post-hurricane cleanup work along the Gulf Coast, she tried several searches on FPDS-NG and found nothing.

The system demanded exact word matches to reveal DOD contracts, she said. "I finally had to find Defense, comma, department of, comma, and department has to be abbreviated," Nelson said. After doing so, she discovered she needed to look up numerical codes for the specific contract office.

"I gave up. I went to the Corps of Engineers' site and had the list in five minutes," she said.

Scott Orbach, president of EZGSA, said the system's documentation is not readily accessible or easy to use.

"This has the potential to be a very useful tool, but it's not there yet," Orbach said.

The attention paid to FPDS-NG raises questions about the broader topic of the systems that contracting officers use and whether agencies are making the process of evaluating bids, awarding contracts and managing projects efficient enough.

"Are these contracting officers working on 10 different systems for one single contract?" Orbach asked. "Could the entire process be integrated more seamlessly?"

Finding the problem

Government Accountability Office analysts tested ease of use of the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) by trying to construct reports using the publicly available interface and finding certain types of information. They concluded that even with training for users, the system is not easy.

GAO's other main worries:

  • The Defense Department, the largest contracting entity in government, is still not electronically submitting data to FPDS-NG.
  • Although agencies were instructed to review and correct their data before connecting to FPDS-NG and certify the accuracy and completeness of their fiscal 2004 data, the General Services Administration has not provided information about the data's accuracy, contributing to lower user confidence.
  • The system could not provide information on interagency contracting, such as when one agency uses a governmentwide acquisition contract held by another agency.

-- Michael Hardy

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