FPDS in midst of system overhaul

GSA's David Drabkin said the agency is pleased with the upgrades so far to the Federal Procurement Data System by Global Computer Enterprises Inc.

J. Adam Fenster

There's an old saying that if you torture the numbers long enough, they'll tell you whatever you want to hear. But the numbers coming out of the Federal Procurement Data System have long been known to have problems that can interfere with their ability to tell anything, such as lack of timeliness, inconsistency and reporting errors.

Very soon, perhaps by the end of this year, FPDS might begin to provide high-quality information on government spending -- contract by contract, task order by task order -- on nearly a real-time basis.

Global Computer Enterprises Inc., a small systems integrator in Gaithersburg, Md., won a five-year, $24 million contract to replace the data system. In October, the first portion of the overhaul went online, allowing federal agencies to provide contract data manually through a Web interface, machine to machine or through batch processing.

The next step, improving the output of the data system, is expected to be unveiled in 30 to 60 days, said David Lucas, director of business development for GCE.

"You'll be able to get real-time snapshots of federal procurement activities," Lucas said. "We're going to create an online snapshot that gets built minute by minute" as agencies enter their data.

David Drabkin, the General Services Administration's deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy, said GSA is extremely pleased with GCE's progress in upgrading the system.

"This was a very, very good contract. ... We have every reason to believe this is going to continue to go well. The only real issue will be the agencies' efforts to connect to FPDS," he said.

At the same time, Drabkin defended the existing system, saying that the General Accounting Office found it was more than 90 percent accurate.

"That's pretty good for a database that tracks ... $265 billion worth of spending," he said. "But the goal is to get as close to 100 percent as possible."

The need for accurate information is critical to lawmakers, agencies and the business community, said Ray Bjorklund, vice president of market intelligence at Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va. market research firm.

"People rely on [FPDS] for market share, for information about competitors," Bjorklund said. "Even at a policy level, it's a way of collecting statistics."

As one example, Bjorklund cited a study done for a congressional committee on the effects of contract bundling, the practice of consolidating two or more separate, smaller contracts for goods or services into one large contract. The bundled contract is unlikely to be won by a small company because it might not be large enough to handle the new combined requirements.

To gauge the effect of bundling on small business, data must accurately reflect what agencies are spending, which contract vehicles are used, which companies are winning the work and what size the companies are.

"It's extra work for us, or any user of the data, to try and sort out what's right and what's wrong," Bjorklund said.

When doing research recently on government spending in late 2002, Bjorklund found a particular systems integrator listed as winning a surprisingly large $1.6 billion task order, but further research revealed the information to be inaccurate. "That kind of skews the data," he said.

Drabkin said GSA was never given the responsibility to make sure the data was accurate, just that all the data elements were filled in.

In another example, one of the highest profile contracts in the government telecommunications space is FTS2001, the long-distance contract awarded almost five years ago to Sprint Corp. and WorldCom Inc.

According to FSI, the two companies received a combined total of $294 million in revenue from contract award through the end of fiscal 2002.

Input Inc., the Chantilly, Va. market research firm, shows the combined total to be $417 million. Both of these firms purchase their data from the FPDS.

But GSA, which awarded and manages the FTS2001 contract and which is also responsible for FPDS, said the two companies earned almost $1.4 billion between them through fiscal 2002. That's more than 230 percent higher than Input's figures and almost 370 percent higher than FSI's numbers.

Payton Smith, Input's manager of federal market analysis services, said a lot of the problems with the system are generally traceable to human error.

"Company names get spelled different ways. You can find IBM spelled half a dozen different ways," he said. "That sort of thing carries over to a lot of other fields in the data. ... Decimal points in the amounts can be missed."

The new data output portion of FPDS will help the government realize where it's spending money so agencies can make better decisions, GCE's Lucas said, but "it's going to take a little time to populate the database. I don't think we're going to go back and fix data from 1992."

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com.

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