Open Data

GSA moves one step closer to replacing DUNS

bar chart made of $100 

The General Services Administration took an important step toward reducing its reliance on a proprietary business entity identifier system in government contracting.

The agency released a request for information on Feb. 13 in advance of the possible adoption of a new numbering system for "government-wide entity identification and validation services."

Currently the federal contracting system relies on the Data Universal Numbering System, or DUNS number, from Dun & Bradstreet.

The pitfalls associated with using a proprietary reference system first came to public attention in 2014, when a key contract covering data use on the Recovery.gov website expired, and D&B pulled its data from the site. Recovery.gov was considered at the time the gold standard for spending transparency, and the loss of rich transactional data activated many in the open government community to advocate for an open standard as a replacement.

"The public should be able to quickly and easily access public data about contracting and contracts, including their performance, status and outcomes," said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, in an email to FCW. "It's good news that the GSA is finally moving forward on developing a better approach to contractor identity, more than two years ... after the issue affected Recovery.gov."

Dun and Bradstreet's contract for business identifiers expires in 2018.

The company has made moves to open up of late. Last September, it signed an agreement that allows federal agencies and the public wider use of the data generated using the proprietary DUNS business identifier that has been used in government procurement to track spending for years.

In a Feb. 3 column in The Hill, D&B's Chief Data Scientist Anthony Scriffignano argued that the government stands to lose a great deal by giving up DUNS, and shifting to an open system like the global Legal Entity Identifier.

"The LEI does not give the government information it needs to evaluate entities entrusted with taxpayer dollars," Scriffignano wrote. "Financial health information, corporate linkages and company history are also absent." He also noted that registration fees for LEI users present a burden for small businesses compared with the free registration available for DUNS.

However, there has been a push for a completely open, non-proprietary standard, especially as federal agencies edge closer to fully implementing the Data Act, which opens up spending data.

"The [RFI] is a big step toward the open data future we've been fighting for," said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Coalition.

With the RFI, the GSA said in its Feb. 13 statement, the government "is exploring all viable means of continuing to meet its ongoing need for entity identification and validation services after the contract's expiration." GSA also said federal acquisition regulations such as the FAR have been revised to remove proprietary references to D&B and DUNS.

"This RFI represents a step forward in assessing entity validation services…on behalf of the entire government awards community," said Integrated Award Environment Deputy Assistant Commissioner Vicky Niblett in the statement.

"We want to ensure integrity over the awards of taxpayer dollars as we proceed to the next steps," Niblett said. "GSA remains committed to transparency within this process, and seeks to obtain maximum public input."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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