OMB Watch Submits Comments on Contractor Database
On Nov. 5, OMB Watch submitted comments and recommendations to the General Services Administration (GSA) on the new Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS). Required by the FY 2009 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the database is supposed to help contracting officials make better award determinations by providing timely information on the honesty and reliability of contractors.
While OMB Watch has long supported the creation of a responsibility database, the group found several problems with the proposed rule. Problem areas included the planned structure of the database and its relationship to other contracting databases; the quality and display of the information; the lack of specified training for contracting officials on how to use the database; and the inability of the public to access the database.
According to the proposed rule in the Federal Register, Section 872 of the FY 09 NDAA calls for the GSA "to establish and maintain a data system containing specific information on the integrity and performance of covered Federal agency contractors and grantees." The provision also "requires awarding officials to review the data system and consider other past performance information when making any past performance evaluation or responsibility determination." Ideally, the performance database would provide contracting officers (CO) a one-stop shop with easily measurable findings that they could consult when attempting to choose between various contractors. The proposed rule falls short in several of these areas, according to OMB Watch's comments.
The proposal creates yet another separate performance database that combines some new performance information and some information already available in other databases. In fact, the proposed rule calls for contracting officials to consult both FAPIIS and the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS), an already existing database, when making a bid determination. The comments to GSA noted that rather than having to search multiple databases, COs should be able to get all the pertinent data they require to make a sensible decision from a single interface that is fed by a system of distributed databases that are linked together, web-accessible, and fully searchable.
However, simply collecting all the contractor information stored in the government's many contracting databases and funneling it into one interface would not solve the problem of the lack of data coherence among the information collected. The contractor data collected by the government needs extensive revision and standardization before it can be useful to contracting officials, OMB Watch noted. In its comments, the group said the government should develop a quantified scoring system to help COs sift through the millions of compliance records that currently present different information in different ways, complicating an already difficult task and overburdening an overworked and understaffed government contracting corps. Making it even more important to standardize the information is the need for the government to broaden the scope of the information presented in the database.
The current proposal limits the amount of information a CO could view on any one contractor in several ways. While the language establishing FAPIIS requires the database to provide many types of performance data, it establishes a high threshold for the inclusion of information and an arbitrary time limit on that information populating the database. The rule requires contractors to report information on civil, criminal, and administrative actions only if the contractor settles the issue with an admission of fault, which rarely happens, as dispute settlements usually purposefully lack an admission of guilt. OMB Watch's comments make clear that the rule should require the database to include all civil, criminal, and administrative proceedings, regardless if the outcome includes an admission of guilt. The arbitrary time limit of five years for information to stay in the database should also change, the group said. While contracting officials should not necessarily hold past transgressions against a contractor, it is essential for a CO to gain perspective on a judgment by seeing a company's entire history.
Furthermore, there is no requirement for COs to go through any training or receive any detailed guidance on the appropriate use of the new database. Without knowledge of how to evaluate the various findings provided through FAPIIS, contracting officials are likely to ignore the information in the new performance database or only pay it a cursory consultation. This is contrary to the purpose of the database, as the information provided should form the basis of a rigorous responsibility review. OMB Watch recommended that the proposal stipulate training for contracting officials on how to use the new database properly.
Lastly, the proposed rule allows only government contracting officials to access the new performance database. Public access to accurate and timely data about the federal contracting process is essential to efficient and effective implementation and oversight of federal contracting. Indeed, there is no reason to withhold from the public all information about how federal contractors are performing. OMB Watch's comments said the proposal should require public disclosure – with pertinent safeguards to protect sensitive business information and within the scope of applicable laws – of contractor performance information. This would foster better decisions from contracting officers and more competition between contractors, as both would become more responsive to increased public scrutiny of contracting decisions and processes.
Other watchdog groups are echoing OMB Watch's recommendations and are calling for sweeping improvements of the proposed rule to create FAPIIS, including the Project on Government Oversight and the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Without some implementation of these recommendations, the government may simply create another layer of bureaucracy that will at best become an annoyance to contracting officials or at worst stifle their important work.