Is GSA stuck with proprietary numbering system?

General Services Administration officials plan to begin negotiations with the owner of the Data Universal Numbering System to ease restrictions on its use, according to a letter released June 12. But the Government Accountability Office suggests that the company which owns the system -- Dun & Bradstreet -- might hold most of the cards in any changes GSA might want to make.

GSA officials have been analyzing other unique identifiers, and they expect to complete their analysis by September, Dan Tangherlini, acting GSA administrator, wrote in his letter to the Government Accountability Office.

"GSA believes that Dun & Bradstreet effectively has a monopoly that has contributed to higher costs," the GAO's letter reads. "This effective monopoly results in part from the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] requirement and [Office of Management and Budget] directives that require all contractors, grantees, and other entities seeking to do business with the government to acquire a DUNS number. GSA officials have said that as long as the FAR requirement is in place they must use the DUNS number and cannot hold a competition for unique identification numbers."

GAO released Tangherlini’s comments June 12, along with its recommendation to try to ease the parameters that Dun & Bradstreet have set around its DUNS numbers, in its letter to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee. DUNS is used to uniquely identify businesses around the world.

The objective of GSA’s research is two-fold. They want to find alternatives to awarding another sole-source contract for Dun and Bradstreet’s proprietary identifiers, and they also are wondering whether staying with Dun & Bradstreet is a worthwhile investment, given the risks of changing systems. A key questionin the decision is the cost of switching to a new system, GAO wrote.

GSA has conducted market research and plans to conduct a cost-benefit analysis and feasibility study regarding a change. Already though, officials have concluded it’s not worthwhile to switch from one proprietary numbering system to another. So, they are also considering the advantages and disadvantages of a government-owned numbering system, or even a hybrid system.

Since 2002, GSA has increased its use of the DUNS number and business information services. The central procurement agency paid $1 million for the services a decade ago. Now it pays $19 million per year under the current contract.

The current contract for DUNS numbers is an eight-year, sole-source contract awarded to Dun & Bradstreet in 2010. The contract now totals up to $154 million, according to GAO.

It won't be easy to award another contract when this one ends though.

Dun & Bradstreet put restrictions on the use of the numbers. The company limits how the government can use the data and hinders its ability to switch to a new numbering system, GAO wrote. For instance, restrictions have hampered efforts to consider companies' links to fraud cases.

Competitors of Dun & Bradstreet say it has an unfair advantage. According to GAO, one organization noted that DUNS numbers are not subject to transparency requirements, such as Freedom of Information Act requests.

Dun & Bradstreet did not respond to a request for comment.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jun 20, 2012 Luc

The problem with all of the comments mentioned above is that DUNS is a global identifier, that is all companies in the world have it. As the GSA also has foreign vendors it needs a system that can handle/match these companies on the same level. DUNS (a unique number) allows organizations to compare apples (defense contractor) with oranges (company providing educational tools) with any other type of fruit (company).

Mon, Jun 18, 2012 Minneapolis

Ditch the DUNS number. If we really need codes, we could use CAGE codes.

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Can anyone explain what the DUNS number is practically used for in today's acquisiton & procurment environment. Seems to me that is the first question that needs to be answer when considering if use of D&B should continue or if there merit in replacing it. Obviously, to continue to use D&B puts GSA/Govt. in a corner - which raises the question: when a non-competitive is executed [as it was last time] an organization is expected to make plans to free itself from subsequent non-comp procurements - what has GSA been doing all this time to develop a competitive alternataive procurment? And if an alternative can not be justified why not simply state the business case and proceed.

Wed, Jun 13, 2012

As someone that has limited knowledge of the acquisition world,I know I may be oversimplifying a bit but, HOW did we ever reach the point of paying someone for NUMBERS? It's simply a primary key that's part of a database. 1 number per company is really what we're talking here. 1 = Merck, 2 = GD, and so on. This is why we look so bad to the public and for good reason.

Wed, Jun 13, 2012 Frank B

Keep DUNS, just reduce the contract price. Right now biz can get a DUNS for free the same day if they call, a month if online --- it works but its costing GSA too much. With today's technology the price should drop and online requests should be self-service (and done in minutes).

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