Government Becomes Master of Its Data Domain

The Project On Government Oversight was encouraged last week by news that the General Services Administration (GSA) bought the rights to the federal government’s two primary spending transparency databases: the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation (FPDS-NG) and Aside from wresting control of these important resources from a company in financial trouble, this purchase ensures uninterrupted public access to both websites while they undergo a substantial revamping.

Until the end of last month, FPDS-NG and USASpending were the exclusive property of a contractor called Global Computer Enterprises (GCE), which recently filed for bankruptcy. In 2003, the GSA awarded GCE an eight-year contract to develop, build, and implement FPDS-NG, the government’s main online storehouse of contract spending data. In 2011, it awarded the company a sole-source contract to continue operating and maintaining the database for three more years. The new contract also gave GCE exclusive data rights to USASpending, a contract and grant spending portal linked to FPDS-NG through infrastructure developed by the company.

“FPDS-NG and USASpending are mission-critical systems essential to Federal Government procurement,” the GSA explained in August, about a month before the follow-on contract expired. “Unless a new contract is awarded on or prior to September 30, 2014, the FPDS-NG and USASpending systems will cease operations, resulting in a widespread shutdown of the Government’s ability to centrally track and report on Federal awards.” The agency set out a course of action: “Accordingly, it is in the best interest of the Government to ensure continuity of operations of FPDS-NG and USASpending through full purchase of the systems and an additional period of operations and maintenance.”

The GSA purchased unlimited rights to both data systems for $9.5 million—the agency reportedly negotiated the price down from $14.2 million. The government will now work to transition the operation and maintenance of FPDS-NG to a new, competitively selected (and hopefully financially solvent) contractor. In the meantime, USASpending will be phased out and replaced next year by a new website being developed by the Treasury Department. Similarly, FPDS-NG will be replaced a few years down the road by a new online tool.

As the GSA pointed out to the media regarding the purchase of FPDS-NG and USASpending, the government has always owned the data. It seems common sense, then, for the government to also own the underlying infrastructure that helps collect, manage, and disseminate that data. It brings to mind the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS), the federal contractor and grantee tracking system, which the government pays Dun & Bradstreet millions of dollars a year in licensing fees to use. As the Project On Government Oversight’s Scott Amey recently explained to Federal News Radio, reliance on this proprietary system creates logistical headaches for the government and hampers taxpayers’ right to know how their money is being spent. Last month, for example, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency (RAT) Board let its DUNS licensing agreement expire to cut costs. As a result, the RAT Board had to remove from the website a wealth of data about the billions spent on the economic stimulus and Hurricane Sandy recovery.

DUNS, FPDS-NG, and USASpending are shining examples of the risks the government takes by being dependent on contractors for its information technology needs. Ultimately, it is the public that suffers when our right to watch over the government rests so heavily on private companies.