If you’ve ever tried to research federal contracts you’ll find that the databases used to house those contracts online are not so great. Sen. Claire McCaskill held a hearing yesterday titled, “Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases.” Nancy Scola wrote up the hearing and it isn’t pretty:
All told, there are a million lines of code involved. But there’s really no all told here, because the databases don’t talk to one another. For example, FPDS, the Federal Procurement Data System doesn’t communicate with EPLS, which stands for Excluded Parties List. Which means that theUSASpending.gov website — heralded as the American public’s window into the inner-workings of government, but powered by FPDS — doesn’t even know that contractors contained within it have been banished from government service for defrauding the United States government or otherwise behaving badly. What’s more, on some of these legacy systems, a search for Contractor X, Inc. won’t return results for Contractor X Inc. The shorthand for that particular wrinkle came to be known, during the hearing, as “the comma problem.”
In fact, GAO’s William Woods explained to the senators, the poor state of those databases meant that when his agency was asked by Congress to detail how many contractors were billing the United States government for work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government watchdog group was forced by technology to admit its ignorance. “We could not answer those questions,” said Woods. How many KBRs are at work in American war zones, being paid with taxpayer dollars? How many Blackwaters? Dunno.
The biggest problem, however, didn’t turn out to be the current state of disrepair, but rather the inability to figure out what to do with the whole disclosure regime. To the surprise of almost everyone in the committee room, the General Services Administration (GSA) has been working to create a more sensible contractor disclosure regime with a more accessible public face. It was difficult for federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra to identify who exactly would be overseeing the — yes — contract to revamp the databases. Ultimately that responsibility came down to either the GSA, the Office of Management and Budget or the Office of Federal Procurement.
As Scola writes, “Senator Robert Bennett spoke for many of us today when he sat up on the dais in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and rubbed his temples over, and over, and over, and over again.”