Passage of database bill is just the start

Political wrangling out of the way, OMB, agencies begin the heavy lifting

REPURPOSED: OMB's Clay Johnson says that, by using FPDS-NG, OMB will 'not be creating this [new database] from scratch.'

Henrik G. de Gyor

Getting the bill out of Congress was one thing, but setting up a massive database to track all sorts of federal spending will be something else entirely.

Federal and industry officials agree that creating the searchable Web site, as mandated under S 2590, is feasible, but doing so will take considerable effort because the spending data is inconsistent and scattered throughout multiple layers of government.

'Ideally, this is a good concept, but our concern is really the upfront work' of gathering and collecting the data, said Chris Jahn, president of the Contract Services Association, an industry trade group in Arlington, Va. 'If you don't get that right, it's just garbage in, garbage out.'

Approval expected

The legislation'the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act'passed the House earlier this month and now awaits President Bush's signature. The Office of Management and Budget supports the bill, and White House approval is expected.

Under the legislation, OMB must develop a searchable portal by January 2008 that details how agencies are spending taxpayer money. The site must include data on contracts, subcontracts, vendors, grants, subgrants, grant winners and task orders.

Most of the contracting data already is collected by the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation, an electronic reporting system maintained by the General Services Administration.

But information about grants has been harder to monitor. The FPDS-NG system interacts with nearly all agency procurement systems, including the Defense Department, which recently came on board.

But FPDS-NG has come under fire from all directions for providing inaccurate and incomplete data. In fact, the Acquisition Advisory Panel, a con- gressionally mandated public-private group that seeks to improve government procurement, recommended that OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy make considerable changes to help make the system more reliable.

These issues have some concerned that the new database may not be much better than the one already in place.

'If the government doesn't fix the data creation and collection process first, the new database will have the same problems as the old one,' Jahn said.

David Lucas, director of government relations at Global Computer Enterprises of Reston, Va., the firm that developed FPDS-NG, said his company has enhanced the procurement database and fixed its major flaws by ensuring every agency uses the system.

The problems, Lucas and other officials say, do not lie so much with FPDS-NG as they do with some of the agency and contracting officials who use it.

'We need better training of procurement personnel,' Lucas said, echoing thoughts expressed by two of the bill's main co-sponsors, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). 'There needs to be a push at the agency level to ensure that the data that goes into NG is accurate.'

And at least there is a place to start for contracts, as OMB will be largely starting from scratch to collect the grants information. There are two repositories now'Grants.gov, maintained by the Health and Human Services Department, and the Federal Assistance Award Data System, hosted by the Census Bureau'but neither is considered comprehensive.

Grants data is difficult to track because there is no standardized way for agencies to disclose the information. 'Grants data is very slow to get reported out and doesn't have much detail,' said Paul Murphy, president of Eagle Eye Publishers of Fairfax, Va., a company that publishes and tracks grants information.

Lawmakers estimate that the government spends $300 billion a year in grant awards, spread over some 30,000 organizations.

Starting point

Even though all three databases have their flaws, most government officials believe that, with a few tweaks, FPDS-NG is the best place to start for the new database.

Clay Johnson, OMB deputy director for management, said the procurement side is in much better shape than the grants data, and although he did not offer a total endorsement for starting out with FPDS-NG, he noted that OMB will 'not be creating this from scratch.'

'The feeling is most of the data exists,' Johnson said after a press briefing. 'It may not exist in the form and level of detail it needs, and it may exist in some agencies but not with others.'

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