A toll for federal data?

Users fear that the private contractor that has taken over the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation may be restricting access to information that was once provided by the General Services Administration for a nominal fee.

Last year, Global Computer Enterprises (GCE) Inc. won a contract to maintain and administer the upgraded database. The system stores information about contracts and contractors that is submitted by agencies via their own procurement systems. Agency managers, analysts, researchers, contractors, journalists and anyone else who studies federal procurement use it.

GCE and GSA officials are still finalizing their pricing structure, according to a GSA spokesperson. Under Office of Management and Budget rules, GCE can charge enough to recover its costs in disseminating information, the spokesperson said.

The database is not ready to provide information yet. However, consultants who have traditionally received the data directly from GSA say they are worried that the situation is changing now that a contractor has entered the picture. GSA officials disagree.

"From the start, the FPDS-NG program was designed provide full and open public access," the GSA spokesperson said. "Under its contract with GCE, GSA maintains the responsibility to assure open access to information. When the system is complete, GSA will provide greater public access to this data than ever before."

Under the contract, GCE must make sure that "all users, including resellers of government data, will continue to have full and complete access to this public data," the spokesperson said. GCE will be able to charge an amount similar to what GSA has historically charged, the spokesperson added.

However, Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Publishers Inc., said he has encountered roadblocks in his attempt to acquire the data he normally collects each quarter to assemble his company's information products.

Twice this year, GSA officials have denied Murphy's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for procurement data. "Before, they would come to us," he said. "It was understood that GSA had a statutory responsibility to provide this data to anyone who requested it. There has been a 180-degree reversal in their attitude within the last year."

Murphy said that David Lucas, GCE's director of business development, had at one time suggested charging Eagle Eye and other "heavy users" of the database thousands of dollars. He added that Lucas now denies having cited such charges.

GCE officials deferred questions to GSA.

Federal Sources Inc. is another heavy FPDS user and company officials are also concerned about the situation, said Ray Bjorklund, FSI's chief knowledge officer and senior vice president of consulting.

"It's a very essential part of our client subscription offering, and it's a dataset we use for our consulting work," he said. "We are very concerned that GSA, in a laissez-faire mode, is going to let GCE run amok with the situation by locking us out of the raw data."

GSA officials have sent conflicting messages about who owns the data. In response to Murphy's FOIA requests, David Drabkin, GSA's deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy, wrote: "This data is provided directly to Global Computer Enterprises Inc., the company that owns and operates the FPDS-NG. Thus, the incoming data is not an agency record of GSA."

"They're trying to lead people to believe that's the end of the argument when they say GCE owns and operates the system, but it's not," Murphy said.

However, in response to a Federal Computer Week reporter's questions last week, the GSA spokesperson said, "The solicitation and the resulting contract makes very clear that GSA owns the information in the database. GCE is not authorized to take actions to sell or otherwise dispose of the data without GSA's written approval to do so."

***

Information available through the Federal Procurement Data System includes:

Types of contracts awarded.

Contracts' value.

Products and services bought.

Winning contractors.

Small-business contracting information.

State-by-state breakdowns of federal contracting activities.

Source: Federal Procurement Data Center

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