GSA to offer some free access to federal contract data

The General Services Administration will provide the public with free access to some federal contract information through the Federal Procurement Data System'Next Generation.

Access to all of the raw contract data will be provided for a one-time $2,500 fee, GSA official David Drabkin said today.

The new FPDS will be available to the public Oct. 1, according to GSA.

Information technology industry executives ' and especially IT market research firms ' are eagerly, but cautiously, anticipating the new database because GSA has not published any fiscal 2004 contracting data while FPDS-NG is being constructed.

In the past, the agency has published quarterly reports of contracting activity. Drabkin, GSA's deputy chief acquisition officer, said it won't publish any quarterly reports this year.

Nevertheless, all fiscal 2004 contracting information will be available through FPDS-NG by Dec. 31, Drabkin said. GSA has not been able to publish 2004 data sooner because agencies are still testing their interfaces with FPDS-NG.

The Defense Department, which conducts about half of all government procurements, won't begin entering data into FPDS-NG until September, Drabkin said.

The new database will provide users with up-to-date contracting information, according to GSA. In the past, the data has been three to nine months old by the time it was published, Drabkin said.

About half the agencies will use a machine-to-machine interface to send data to FPDS-NG. This will make contract data available to FPDS-NG users almost immediately. Within a year to 18 months, most agencies will use the interfaces, he said. In the meantime, some agencies will use daily batch reporting, and a few will use Web-based reporting of individual contracts, Drabkin said.

The $2,500 fee will pay for a permanent computer connection to the FPDS-NG database, which will take about five days to set up and test, Drabkin said. Federal agencies and congressional offices will not have to pay for the connection. Drabkin said he expects most entities paying the $2,500 fee will be commercial firms that analyze and sell the data to their clients.

In the federal IT arena, those firms include McLean, Va., Federal Sources Inc., Reston, Va., Input Inc. and Fairfax, Va., Eagle Eye Publishers Inc.

A $2,500 fee, paid only one time, 'would be outstanding. We'd love that,' said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of consulting and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources.

But Bjorklund said he's skeptical that the new system will provide more accurate data than the old one. He once found a product code for 'feed and forage' listed with a large systems integrator's contracts in the old FPDS.

'These [GSA] announcements are softening our concerns, but we have no idea what the data is really going to look like,' he said. 'Hopefully, there are a lot more business rules built in between the agencies and the database that will preclude dumb mistakes like that.'

The public will be able to get free access to about 40 standard reports, such as those showing which agencies have awarded contracts to small businesses. In addition, a help desk will provide free, single reports on contracting activities. For example, 'Say you want to know what contracts Lockheed Martin got from the Air Force,' Drabkin said. 'You can call the help desk 24/7, and they will run the report. In some cases they will get it to you right away, or it might take a couple of days. It depends on how discrete you want the information.'

Access to some data may be delayed up to 90 days for security reasons, Drabkin said. For example, if the Army bought equipment or supplies that would indicate an upcoming military operation, 'they wouldn't want folks around the world to know what they were doing,' he said.

GSA is still determining how much information would be withheld from the record in such cases, Drabkin said. He said Congress would still have access to all the data, however. In the past,

Withholding information isn't a new policy, Drabkin said. In the past, information that would affect security was withheld through the Freedom of Information Act process. Now, because the FPDS-NG system will be updated daily, GSA has to figure out another way to safeguard sensitive data, he said.


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