New contractor database draws fire

Industry and good-government groups criticize a new database that would be used to judge contractors before making awards.

A watchdog group says plans to create a database of contractors’ past performance and alleged misconduct are not transparent enough, but a group representing contractors says the database may not be secure enough. And both groups say the contractor performance data may not be reliable enough.

Federal acquisition councils outlined plans for the General Services Administration to form the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System in a Federal Register notice Sept. 3. The councils are carrying out an order from Congress in the defense authorization law for fiscal 2009.

Under the proposed rule, federal officials must consult the database to check on a contractor’s integrity and past performance before awarding a contract. The database will contain past performance information along with information about the involvement of a contractor in criminal, civil and administrative proceedings that involve violations of federal, state and local laws or contracts.

Contractors with awards valued at $10 million must submit data to the system. Only certain federal officials, and some members of Congress by request, will be allowed to view and search the database.

However, the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO) says more transparency is needed.

“Any databases developed by the government for the purpose of reducing fraud and waste in federal contracting should be accessible to the public,” Neil Gordon, a POGO investigator, wrote in comments filed Nov. 5. “The public has a right to know the past performance and responsibility backgrounds of the contractors that receive hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars each year.”

Meanwhile, the Coalition for Government Procurement, which represents 350 federal contractors, is worried about the security of the information in the database.

“While the rule states the database will be private and only federal officials will have access, federal agencies have struggled with information security in recent years,” Barbara Merola, policy director for the coalition, commented Nov. 1. “Contractors providing sensitive information must be protected from security breaches. Competition could be adversely effected should sensitive information about a contractor's products and pricing be made public.”

The organizations said they were concerned about the accuracy of the past performance information to be accessed by the database, including information that may be in other federal databases. In recent months, the Government Accountability Office has found deficiencies in the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS) and in the Excluded Parties List System (EPLS).

Merola said that in the past "data has been inaccurate or nonexistent.” She contended that setting up a new database for past performance would be expensive and redundant because other federal databases already exist for past performance data.

The oversight group said there needs to be corrections to both the past performance database and the excluded parties list before relying on that data.

“Unless drastic steps are immediately taken to fix the problems that plague these existing databases – particularly the EPLS and the PPIRS – the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System will inevitably fall victim to the same problems,” Gordon wrote.

The oversight group also expressed concerns about how contractors will interpret the dollar threshold for required filing in the system; penalties for violations of the requirements; and tracking of contractor aliases, subsidiaries and affiliates.

Since 2002, POGO has published its own federal contractor misconduct database, including data on violations of civil, criminal and administrative laws or regulations, along with allegations of such violations. It notes the amount of settlement payments or penalties. In some cases, no fault was determined, and contractors have argued that it is unfair to be judged on the basis of unproven allegations.

Since 1995, the top 100 federal contractors have paid $26 billion in penalties related to violations and alleged violations, according to the watchdog group’s database.