Missing data hampers contract inventories

Agencies are supposed to maintain contract inventories to give management a clear picture of where their money goes, but some critical data is difficult to get.

Civilian agencies’ inventories of fiscal 2011 service contracts are pocketed with missing data and analysis, leaving the contract lists nearly useless when managers need them, according to a recent audit.

In 2010, Congress required civilian agencies to create the inventories as the government worked to balance out its reliance on the private sector. Forty-nine agencies are required to submit inventories with 15 data points. Agencies have to note the type of services for which they contract, the role the services played in achieving the agency’s objectives, and how much money was obligated for the service.

In its review, the Government Accountability Office reported Sept. 28 that 48 of the 49 agencies compiled their fiscal 2011 inventories. But on instructions from the Office of Management and Budget, agencies have deferred the collection of three required data elements, including the role of the services, how much money was invoiced, and the number and work location of contractors’ and subcontractors’ employees. OMB has told agencies to work without those numbers because the information is not readily available.

GAO wrote that the inventories’ usefulness decreases when agencies don’t collect all of the required data. Agencies don’t have good visibility, for instance, as to the number of contractors or their role in supporting an agency’s work.

Despite the weaknesses, though, the inventories have proven useful here and there. Last year, five agencies found three contracts where contractors were performing work that only a federal employee should be doing, which are called inherently governmental functions. Furthermore, agencies found 104 instances where contractors were performing work closely associated with an inherently governmental function, according to GAO’s report.

In fiscal 2011, civilian agencies reported $161 billion in contract obligations, and $126 billion, or almost 80 percent, of which were for services, such as professional management and IT support.

However, GAO had a hard time determining whether these results indicated if agencies were using contractors appropriately. Agencies failed to include important context in their reports, such as the number of contracts or the percentage of their inventories reviewed.

“If the service contract inventories are to be a valuable management tool, it is essential that civilian agencies’ inventories contain comprehensive, accurate, and actionable data,” GAO wrote.

GAO recommended that OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy work with agencies to improve their inventories, even requiring agencies to designate an official to be in charge of getting the inventories complete. GAO also urged OFPP to issue guidance so that agencies gather a more in-depth picture of how and what they’re including in their inventories.

OMB officials told GAO they generally agreed with the report, and said OFPP will work with agencies on the inventories. OFPP will share lessons and the best practices agencies have learned from gathering data for their initial inventories.

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