Vendor data gets user-friendly

NIH's Diane Frasier says more than 100 agencies are expected to use a new system providing access to past-performance information.

OFPP leads team effort to consolidate thousands of performance records

When contracting officers or members of a source selection committee need to find out about a potential vendor's quality of work on previous contracts, collecting the data often is a challenge.

It usually involves tapping into databases run by the Defense Department, NASA or the National Institutes of Health and checking with other agencies for paper copies of past-performance reports. The process is time-consuming, burdensome and tricky, government procurement experts said.

But the process is about to change. The three agencies are working with the General Services Administration and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to create a central past-performance records database for use governmentwide.

'This will reduce the amount of effort that it takes to check vendors' past performance,' said David Drabkin, GSA's deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy and chairman of the Procurement Executive Council's Acquisition Business Practices Committee.

Officials from DOD, NASA, NIH and OFPP conceived of the Past-Performance Information Retrieval System 18 months ago during discussions to establish a common system for retrieving past-performance records. It soon became an element of GSA's Integrated Acquisition e-government initiative.

Although the use of the system won't be mandatory, OFPP last month sent a memo to senior procurement executives strongly encouraging agencies to use PPIRS, which will become fully operational later this month.

OFPP instructed agencies to stop developing collection and retrieval databases because PPIRS will be adequate for use by all agencies. DOD will manage the retrieval database.

Meanwhile, the department, NASA and NIH will continue to run their systems as collection repositories. DOD has two data collection systems, and NASA and NIH each run one. NIH runs its system on a fee-for-service basis, providing other agencies a collection service for their records.

'PPIRS is a reflection of how technology has evolved,' Drabkin said. 'We are more capable of working in a paper-free environment.'

The need for a common retrieval system is clear, Drabkin said. In fiscal 2001, agencies inked 172,000 contracts worth more than $100,000. For each contract, agencies collected past-performance data on all potential vendors. The need for such data has grown in recent years because so many contracts are based on best value instead of lowest price. A vendor's past performance has become a key bid evaluation factor.

'We wanted to come up with a system that provided the most expedient way of sharing information,' said Diane Frasier, NIH's director of acquisition management and policy, and chairwoman of the PPIRS User Group.

The user group decided to develop PPIRS by modifying DOD's Past Performances Automated Information System because it was already collecting a vast amount of data and had proved compatible with multiple systems across the services, Frasier said.

DOD developed PPAIS, which uses an Oracle8i database, using SilverStream from Novell Inc. PPAIS presents data, which agencies submit using Extensible Markup Language schemas, in HTML.

DOD will stop using PPAIS as a retrieval system and rely solely on PPIRS, said Stanley DeWitt, a PPIRS program analyst for DOD. He said DOD will maintain the new system and use funds from GSA to pay for the extra cost of adding records.

From here to there

NASA shifted information to PPIRS from its Past Performance Database, and NIH is completing the migration of data from its Contractor Performance System, which stores information from 17 civilian agencies.

PPIRS includes 17,890 vendor past-performance records related to more than $650 billion worth of contracts.

To cover the system's operation and maintenance, agencies will pay a minimal use fee. The specific price for access still must be set. Agencies already pay between $2,000 and $18,000 a year to use NIH's system, depending on the amount of data they store on it.

NIH is finishing the shift of its records.

'We took our structure and mapped it to the tags that DOD defined,' said Debbie Bucci, a computer specialist at NIH's Center for IT. 'We have an enormous amount of data, and it has been very time-consuming.'

Bucci has been using the XML schemas to transfer almost 5,000 records to PPIRS from NIH's database.

Right of perusal

Once PPIRS is running, each user will need a personal identification number and password. The system will use 128-bit Secure Sockets Layer encryption, DeWitt said.

Security turned out to be the biggest issue for the participating agencies. DeWitt said there will be a distributed authorization plan, under which all participating agencies will be responsible for their own users.

The working group has not yet decided how often NIH will feed new data into PPIRS, but it will be a scheduled feed, Bucci said. She said the working group is considering using Secure File Transfer Protocol or Secure Shell file transfer to move data.

DeWitt said NASA transfers data from a 128-bit SSL Web site, and DOD is using FTP to send information weekly. NASA's frequency also still is being decided, he said.

Agencies still will use their own collections systems or NIH's, but PPIRS will be the only way to retrieve all the data from a single source. DeWitt said agencies usually fill out a standard online evaluation form written in HTML to enter data into the collection systems, and the host agency transfers the data for all agencies to view. Contractors also can view their own records.

DeWitt said 1,832 federal employees have registered to use PPIRS, of which more than 1,500 are from DOD. Vendor access also is growing, with more than 12,000 registered.

'Our long-range vision is, when contracting officers or source selection officials look for past-performance information, they will get the full picture of the work a contractor has performed' across government, Frasier said.

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