McCaskill probes 'clunky' contracting databases

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The federal government maintains information about federal contractor performance in a system of databases that is supposed to keep contract officers up to date on how well contractors are executing on their work, and whether they have been sanctioned or subject to criminal penalties.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill says the system "feels shockingly old and clunky," with relevant information "scanty, and scattered across multiple databases."

The Missouri Democrat says she wants more reliable data standards to identify contracting companies, and a more unified system, with a simpler interface, that includes data from states, when available. Additionally, she is concerned that contract officers are reluctant to enter negative performance information about contractors.

Government-wide contractor performance information is accessible via the Past Performance Information Retrieval (PPIRS) database, established in 2002 under the E-Government Act.

But there is a separate system, the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS) for entering information into PPIRS, created in 2010 to combine individual agency systems. Information on suspended and debarred contractors is contained in yet another place, the System for Award Management (SAM). And the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) contains information on contractors who have been subject to criminal convictions or certain civil penalties.

Plans have been in place since 2001 to create a single system called the Integrated Acquisition Environment to unify all contracting information from solicitations to awards to performance metrics in a single resource.

Delays, cost overruns and development problems have pushed back the scheduled completion date to 2018, according to Kevin Youel Page, a General Services Administration assistant commissioner who testified at a March 6 hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, which McCaskill chairs.

"We've suffered our own missteps," Page said. "We're using new 21st century architectural principles and the right kind of development approach to minimize risk."

The proposed consolidation is being phased in gradually. The next step is the inclusion of three systems used to input past performance information on contacts into the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS), set to take place in June.

McCaskill is also worried that a unified system might maintain some of the divergent data standards of legacy databases.

For example, company names frequently appear with a variety of different spellings, making it potentially difficult for contract officers to get a read on a company's full contracting history. Companies can maintain dozens of identifiers in the Dun and Bradstreet numbering system used by the government, and this makes it difficult to track the relationship between divisions, subsidiaries, joint ventures and other corporate entities. Companies can change their names or be acquired by other firms and their performance histories can essentially disappear.

McCaskill noted that CGI Federal, the company most closely associated with the buggy website launch, was built out of the acquisition of American Management Systems by parent company CGI. American Management Systems had its own problems as a government contractor, failing in a project to build an online portal for the federal retirement savings system and modernize its recordkeeping.

McCaskill wondered if this history would have given any contract officers second thoughts about the assignment. CGI Federal, she noted, was ranked "exceptional" in every category in a June 2013 assessment.

"We know it turned out not to be true," McCaskill said.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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