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Strengthening Checks and Balances

GSA Learns Lessons from Lost Recovery Board Data

The system for tracking entities that do business with the federal government could be changing in the future. Last week, the General Services Administration (GSA) announced a new contract with Dun & Bradstreet (D&B) that alters the way the company provides the government with identifying data on contractors, grantees, and others receiving federal funds. This announcement is welcomed, and it sets the stage for an improved identifier system down the road, without any extra costs or loss of data.

GSA’s Integrated Award Environment (IAE) is a system that tracks federal financial assistance (i.e., grants and loans), contracts, and intergovernmental transactions. Everything in that system is tied to D&B’s data and its proprietary entity identification system, called DUNS. Simply stated, if you need information about a contractor, you can look it up by its name or by its DUNS number, which is the equivalent of an individual’s social security number. But unlike a social security number, which is owned and assigned by Uncle Sam, D&B owns the data and the DUNS number and controls how all of that can be used. The government has made moves to separate itself from D&B, specifically removing DUNS references in contracting regulations, and is considering whether another identification system would more effectively and cheaply track companies and other awardees.

This announcement is welcome news to many groups (p. 39), including POGO (in 2012 and 2016), that have raised concerns about the current identifier system. Other non-proprietary systems now exist that would not require the government to use—and pay for—D&B’s data, and the government is considering switching over to one of those systems. In the meantime, with the new contract GSA and D&B have headed off additional issues caused by data loss like those that occurred a few years ago when a wealth of government spending information housed by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board—the agency that oversaw stimulus spending—was lost when it discontinued its D&B contract.

GSA’s announcement states that the new contract eliminates: 1) barriers for how the government uses D&B data; 2) the need to remove D&B data from government systems in the future if another data and identification system is used by the government; and 3) barriers for commercial third-parties to access and use government-displayed D&B data.

Obtaining perpetual-license and -usage rights places the government in a much better position if and when it decides to switch to a new government entity data and identification system. Retention of the data is a huge get for Uncle Sam, and shows goodwill by D&B to allow data to drive public policy improvements both now and in the future. Who knows how much longer we will use proprietary D&B data and DUNS numbers, but at least the government planned ahead to ensure that any future change will not cause a major government disruption or loss of data.