Technical, data issues continue to plague vendor performance databases

The four different systems that hold vendor past performance data look and feel shockingly old and clunky.

So says Sen. Claire McCaskill.

The Missouri Democrat wonders why agencies still, after more than a decade of work, do not have the information required to make good procurement decisions.

McCaskill said she’s frustrated by two main issues: the first being the technology that supports the different past performance databases. The databases aren’t integrated after more than a decade of effort led by the General Services Administration.

McCaskill, the chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight, said at a hearing Thursday that both the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS) and the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS) are lacking in 2014 technology capabilities.


“My staff has also found several technical issues with FAPIIS, including issues as simple as the ‘back’ button not working. In FAPIIS, both the public website and modular within PPIRS, the ‘back’ link to go back to search results only works in Internet Explorer, but not with any other browser,” McCaskill said. “If we do a search for past performance in PPIRS and then want to see adverse actions in FAPIIS for the same company DUNS number, you have to switch applications. It’s now not possible to be signed into both PPIRS and the FAPIIS module at the same time. Now, while it’s not difficult to switch from PPIRS to FAPIIS and vice versa, what happens when you switch is you lose whatever search you were doing in the database you switched from. So in addition to whatever technical glitches, it’s these little things that make the contracting officer’s job more difficult and can lead to overlooking information. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect these databases not to have these technical blocks that makes it much more difficult to do this basic research.”

80 different listings

Along with the technical difficulties, McCaskill said the lack of information, or at least the inconsistent information, in these databases also is bothersome.

She used Lockheed Martin as one example of the challenges contracting officers face to understand vendor past performance under a DUNS number, which is a not-so-unique identifier of vendors and their subsidiaries.

McCaskill said having so many not-so-unique identifiers makes it hard for contracting officers to get a sense of vendor contract performance.

“If a contracting officer were to do a name search in an effort not to miss the big picture, it can render the system nearly impossible to navigate,” she said. “I want to illustrate how problematic this is with a common example: Lockheed Martin. If we searched Lockheed Martin by name in an effort to get a big picture sense of the company’s past performance, instead of a particular subsidiary, we get a list of over 80 entries. It’s riddled with confusing names, some with bad typos. For instance, we have Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is apparently different than Lockheed Martin Corp without a period, Lockheed Martin Corp. with a period, Lockheed Martin Corporation Lockheed, Lockheed Martin Corporation Lockheed Mar, I think you get the idea.”

She said Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems has different DUNS numbers — one with 346 evaluations and one with one evaluation.

“The point is if you have a DUNS number for one small part of Lockheed, you are missing all the other subsidiaries and parent corporations which could shed light on the corporation’s behavior,” McCaskill said. “If you don’t have a DUNS number and try to search by name, this is what you have to deal with. I’m not sure how the contracting officer is supposed to handle this.”

Vendors and associations that represent them say there is something to the fact that the performance of one part of a company, such as Lockheed Martin, may not at all relate to another part. But as McCaskill explained, having 80 different listings in the databases doesn’t make sense either.

The fix has not been in

Part of McCaskill’s frustration is the fact that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and GSA have been trying to address this issue for more than a decade.

OFPP came up with the Integrated Acquisition Environment (IAE) as part of the e-government initiatives in the early 2000s. The goal of IAE was and continues to be to consolidate eight disparate databases that contain contracting information, both past performance and other types such as subcontracting or the central contractor registration.

GSA initially launched the System for Award Management (SAM) in 2012, and initially faced a host of technology and cyber challenges over the last few years.

Kevin Youel Page, GSA’s assistant commissioner for IAE, said the agency has a new plan to improve the system for award management.

“We are working on a series of incremental developments to do small and agile development across the 10 platforms,” Youel Page said. “We have scheduled the entire platform to be put into a more user centric format by fiscal year 2018, but with phased improvements between now and then in small increments, beginning with some of the work in FedBizOpps and making our federal opportunities available.”

This latest plan comes after GSA told the committee in 2009 it had planned to integrate the databases by 2013, which obviously didn’t happen.

Youel Page said GSA is trying to learn from past mistakes by using new architecture principles that will help minimize risk.

GSA also is trying to address the other concern McCaskill brought up, which was how vendors had many different DUNS numbers.

“Some of the nuance behind the reason we are here has to do with PPIRS being a collection point for, historically, a number of entry points, and so there are data standards mismatches between those legacy systems and what’s in PPIRS,” Youel Page said. “It’s a known problem that we are seriously trying to grapple with and consolidate the systems and do a better job as a federal government managing data standards more broadly across the acquisition world.”

He said there is a Federal Acquisition Regulations Council case going through the process to establish the Defense Department’s CAGE code as a way to capture the relationship between companies and their subsidiaries.

“We have been looking and continuing to scan the environment for other ways beyond Dun and Bradstreet and DUNS numbers to manage entity management things, like the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI) being pursued by the G8 and the G20, and I believe the Federal Reserve is managing that on behalf of the U.S. government,” Youel Page said.

He added the hard work of creating data standards and managing them is key to making systems more useful.

A standard way to evaluations

The other issue that GSA is trying to address is the ratings system for evaluations of contractors.

Youel Page said GSA is in discussions with OFPP and the interagency community to come up with common definitions of what a rating means. He said the government is close to being able to do better and different kinds of analytics on vendor past performance data.

McCaskill was unhappy that OFPP didn’t show up for the hearing.

But Frank Benenati, an OMB spokesman, said the White House was clear with the subcommittee that a witness would not be available because of the fiscal 2015 budget release.

“The administration believes strong financial and contracting oversight is critical, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this issue,” he said. “Deputy Director [for Management Beth] Cobert will also address this commitment when she testifies before the full committee [Wednesday].”

Cobert, along with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro and GSA Administration Dan Tangherlini, will testify Wednesday before the full committee during a hearing titled, “Management Matters: Creating a 21st Century Government.”

In the meantime, OFPP has been trying to get control of the past performance challenges for much of the past decade. Most recently, it required in March 2013, in a third such memo, that all agencies use PPIRS as their only database for entering vendor past performance data.

Along with OFPP, the Federal Acquisition Regulations Council issued a final rule in August to provide factors for governmentwide standardized past performance evaluations.

Third party data is an answer

The rule stated reports should evaluate a contractor’s performance on a host of factors, from cost control and technical quality to business relations.

Evaluations also may include relevant subfactors. Report factors will be tailored to the nature of the contract, with respect to its size, complexity, content and type.

Additionally, the FAR Council issued a proposed rule last August that would reduce the timeline to 14 days from 30 before the agency posts the evaluation in the Past Performance Information Retrieval System or PPIRS.

Rob Burton, a procurement lawyer with Venable and a former deputy administrator of OFPP, said this issue has hung over the government for so long several reasons.

“The vast amount of data in all the systems is just the biggest data system in the world really. The Federal Procurement Data System tracks trillions of dollars of contract awards over the years. I really think a lot of people just have no concept of the degree and the magnitude of the data the government is dealing with. It’s just incredible,” Burton said. “I do think this is an area, though, you need to work with the private sector on. The private sector has a lot of information on government contractors — credit data, responsibility data criminal data — there’s all sorts of information out there the federal government doesn’t have to replicate. It can just tap into through other existing systems.”

Burton said relying on third party data may be the easiest and quickest way to tackle this challenge. He said the government could buy a service, say through GSA, and give others across government access to the information.

Burton said he knows of a few agencies which get alerts from third parties about certain contractors, but it’s not a widespread practice.


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OFPP tells agencies to get serious about tracking contractor performance

Final rule sets new categories, factors for evaluating past performance

Proposal cuts time for vendors to comment on performance reviews