Senators weigh in on GSA contract award

The contract for an acquisition database is in the cross hairs of a Senate panel because of continous problems with federal contracting data

The General Services Administration’s effort to award the contract for an acquisition database is in the cross hairs of a Senate panel whose members are concerned about persistent problems with the quality of federal contracting data.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) views the Architecture and Operations Contract Support (AOCS) procurement as essential to the government’s ability to track how agencies spend contract money and how well the contractors perform.

The winning bidder will run the existing Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) and build a services architecture for the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE), a portfolio of nine systems for collecting and managing contracting data.

During a hearing last week, Bennett said that if he was the chief executive officer of a corporation, he would want to know who was getting the contract and he would want to be able to review the decision.

“Something as important as this — if I was CEO, I’d want to know, even though I was not the one to make the final decision,” he said Sept. 29 at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Contracting Oversight Subcommittee.

“You make the wrong decision on a contract, and you’ll ruin everything,” said Bennett, the subcommittee’s ranking member, during a break in the hearing.

IAE, an e-government initiative that started during the George W. Bush administration, seeks to simplify and streamline the federal acquisition process for buyers and sellers. It looks for ways to link systems, share data among systems, and make data accessible to agencies and, in some cases, the public.

The nine IAE systems share a great deal of data. For example, information on a vendor is collected in the Central Contractor Registration and shared with FPDS; the Federal Business Opportunities Web site, which posts notices on contract awards; and the Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System.

The databases should clarify what agencies are buying, how much they are spending and which contractors are winning their business. However, experts say the data is often inaccurate or simply nonexistent. Those problems have lingered for years, but officials say they are hopeful fixes in the new system will resolve them.

According to GSA, the government could save as much as 50 percent of the $27 million in annual operating costs for the nine systems by moving to a central architecture under AOCS. The systems have overlapping functions so the new platform would simplify activities while eliminating redundancies.

However, in its solicitation, GSA said few people understand the acquisition process or the systems that support it. For instance, each system has its own database with unique elements, user accounts, accreditations and security certifications.

Officials decided to award the AOCS contract to one company that would be responsible for overseeing all the existing systems rather than continue the practice of awarding contracts for each system. The AOCS contractor will provide support services for FPDS while designing an architecture to integrate all the services.

Although that approach could be successful, it presents great risks, said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the subcommittee's chairwoman. AOCS could link all the pieces together, or it could just rearrange elements without making improvements.

The AOCS contract will be a tough job, and the government needs a proficient contractor that can build a sturdy system, senators said at the hearing.

Bennett’s main question was, “Who’s going to do this?”

The senator posed that question to William Woods, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office. Woods said GAO does not know which contractors GSA is considering for the contract because the agency is in the process of evaluating bids.

Furthermore, Woods said, GAO rules on bid protests, and intervening now would spoil its objectivity if a company disputes the award.

Bennett also put officials from the Office of Management and Budget on the spot, pinning on them the responsibility to review the award decision and oversee the contract. “OMB is the president, in terms of managing the federal government,” he said.

But Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, said the responsibility should not be OMB's alone. Agencies need to stop working on their own data systems and instead collaborate on a broader system.

"If agencies have a guidebook to follow when they're asked to develop new databases or improve the ones that are in place, then we can begin to see more consistent results" and interoperability over time, he said.

McCaskill said agencies need to understand the importance of entering accurate data into the systems. Without quality data, “this is really an empty exercise,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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