Data transfer problems hinder electronic subcontracting system

The administration wants all agencies and their contractors to use a new online system to track their compliance with federal subcontracting goals. But some officials are worried that a problem-plagued procurement database'which feeds the new system'could inhibit the program's effectiveness.

The Electronic Subcontractor Reporting System reached initial operating capability for most civilian agencies last month, marking a significant step in the administration's Integrated Acquisition Environment E-Government initiative.

The system, at www.esrs.gov, gives agencies and their large vendors a one-stop shop for proving to Congress and the Small Business Administration that they are meeting milestones for subcontracting with small, disadvantaged and woman-owned businesses.

Just days after ESRS became operational, Robert Burton, associate administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, required civilian agencies and their large contractors to use it for fiscal 2004 and 2005.

The Defense Department will begin using the system next year.

Before ESRS went live, agencies and vendors filed separate paper forms and verified their benchmarks to SBA through the mail. ESRS' most important feature 'is that the government is going to get the information more timely and accurately,' said Robert Taylor, SBA's ESRS project manager.

As part of the Office of Management and Budget's e-government initiative, the General Services Administration tapped Symplicity Corp. of Arlington, Va., to develop ESRS by mid-summer.

GSA had hoped to deploy the system in August and go to full-scale operation in the first quarter of fiscal 2006 but changed the schedule so ESRS could be fully integrated with the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation.

The system relies on GSA's embattled FPDS-NG, an online site that tracks agency spending for goods and services. ESRS relies completely on contract and agency data submitted to FPDS-NG, said Arthur Collins, deputy associate administrator for government contracts at SBA.

For ESRS to work properly, agencies must ensure that their contracting information in FPDS-NG is up-to-date and accurate, Collins said.

But that's been a problem for at least one agency, as FPDS-NG has come under fire from Congress and the Government Accountability Office for not containing accurate con- tract data.

The Agency for International Development told its contractors in mid-October that despite the OFPP mandate, it will not be using ESRS until problems with FDPS-NG are resolved.

'We have tested the ESRS on three separate occasions and are uncertain that the information for our large prime contract awards will be accessible to you when you query the ESRS,' Michael Walsh, director of USAID's Office of Acquisitions and Assistance, said in a letter to contractors. 'This is due in part to the difficulty that USAID has experienced in migrating these data into the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation.'

A USAID spokesman said the agency is working to resolve the problems and hopes to be using ESRS over the next few months.

OMB is requiring that all agencies use ESRS now that it has reached initial operating capability. And while USAID is the only agency thus far that has said it will not use the system, a Symplicity spokesman said the contractor is concerned that the problems with FPDS-NG could inhibit the ESRS rollout. 'We get all of these numbers from FPDS-NG,' the spokesman said.

ESRS 'can't be the central repository' for contracting information. 'We have to go to the source, and the source is FPDS-NG,' the spokesman said.

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