Report by HELP Committee Recommends More Open and Transparent Contracting Data

Photo: US Senate

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) released a report revealing that 30% of the largest labor law violators in the country are also government contractors, receiving $81 billion dollars worth of contracts in 2012 alone. The report details how a lack of accurate and consistent performance information results in top offenders getting government contracts year after year. It also describes the difficulty of truly aggregating the offenses by company if you cannot determine the exact shape of their corporate network.

The crux of the problem is threefold: contracting officers don’t have the tools or the data properly evaluate companies, the regulations governing what data are reported is fuzzy, and even if you have good information, grouping the subsidiaries under their respective parent companies is an enormous task unto itself. There are several existing databases meant to aid contracting officers in making better contractor selections, but each one has its own critical flaws.

One of these databases is the Excluded Parties List (EPLS), which contains information on contractors that have been suspended or debarred from receiving federal contracts. Contracting officers are supposed to check this database before awarding contracts. The bar for being suspended or debarred is pretty high — it usually only occurs when a contractor is indicted or already has proceedings against them. But even if a contractor is put on the EPLS, the inconsistencies in the data and lack of search capabilities make it difficult to find them. And that’s assuming someone is checking the EPLS in the first place. Even companies on the EPLS continue to get government contracts because contracting officers do not always check the list before making contract awards.

The Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) is the newest addition to the mix, and is meant to house information on whether or not a contractor has been the subject criminal, civil or administrative proceedings in the past five years. Sounds great in theory but there’s just one problem. This information is self reported by federal contractors to the database. It’s no surprise that only one of the contractors detailed in the Committee’s report actually has an entry in FAPIIS. Additionally, they’re only asked to report this information if they meet a variety of specific requirements, such as:

* The violations happened during the execution of a government contract * The company gets more than $10 million in total contracts * the violation occurs on a contract worth more than $500,000

Having accurate and timely performance information was one of the core guidelines we included in our Procurement Open Data Guidelines. Without it, we will be subsidizing workplace health and safety violations by giving contracts to companies that continue to break the law. Although they sidestep the thorny issue of properly identifying companies (we think DUNS numbers are an insufficient unique identifier), the committee’s recommendations on having better and more interoperable enforcement data are something we support.