Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that a treasure trove of data is about to disappear from the highly lauded website set up to track money spent via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Recovery.gov. The site is slated to sunset next year and The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversees the website, can’t afford to renew its license — up to $1.4 million for one year — with Dun & Bradstreet, the only firm authorized to assign ID numbers to entities doing business with the federal government.
Without this license, Recovery.gov will no longer be able to display data about the entities that ultimately received recovery money. The interactive map and advanced searching that helped make Recovery.gov’s name will lose much of their luster and the websites’ ultimate disappearance will likely be hastened.
This may be a relatively minor blow for transparency; the same data should still be available to the public — if more difficult to find and visualize — on USASpending.gov. However, it highlights a significant problem with the way the US government tracks the entities that it does business with and provides a prime example of the need for a more open and transparent system.
The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires entities seeking federal funds to have a DUNS number, essentially providing Dun and Bradstreet with a monopoly on all entity tracking the federal government wants to do. Dun and Bradstreet also maintains strict control over how the government uses DUNS data, meaning that Recovery.gov probably isn’t allowed to ingest this data from USASpending without paying another license and certainly isn’t allowed to contract with another company for their entity identifier needs. This represents a major roadblock to transparency, efficiency, and competition.
A 2012 GAO report revealed that the General Services Administration has been concerned with this lack of competition for some time and has been looking into alternatives that would bring increased transparency and encourage competition.
There are a number of efforts underway to create global entity identifiers that could free the federal government from the restrictions that go along with relying on DUNS numbers as well as the significant cost — more than $150 million over 8 years for GSA’s contract alone — of contracting with Dun and Bradstreet. We explained and visualized the problems associated with highly restricted identifier systems several years ago in our 6 Degrees of Corporations analysis.
Of course, GSA isn’t the only federal agency with the ability to effect change in this arena. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which became law earlier this year, requires the Office of Management and Budget and Department of Treasury to include “unique identifiers for Federal awards and entities receiving Federal awards that can be consistently applied government wide” in its spending data standards.
The impending loss of Recovery.gov functionality is a prime example of the need for the federal government to find a more open and transparent way of tracking entities that they do business with. OMB, Treasury, and GSA should look beyond Dun and Bradstreet to more open alternatives, even if that means seeking a change in the FAR or ruffling some feathers on the outside.