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Flap over FAPIIS: Site meant to disclose contractor performance ‘worst ... ever'

May. 12, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By SARAH CHACKO   |   Comments
Karen Pica is a policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget.
Karen Pica is a policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget. (Chris Maddaloni / Staff)

Transparency advocates are harshly critical of a new website that is supposed to detail contractors' past performance.

"FAPIIS May Be the Worst Government Website We've Ever Seen," is the headline on an April 19 blog by Tom Lee, who directs work on technological access to government data at the Sunlight Foundation.

FAPIIS refers to the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Performance and Integrity Information System (FAPIIS).">The website is supposed to show actions taken by agencies against poor-performing contractors such as contract terminations or determinations of defective or false pricing data, and contractor self-reporting of criminal, civil or administration actions. Contracting officers are supposed to use the year-old database to review companies' past behavior before awarding a contract.

As of Wednesday, nearly a month after its April 15 launch, the website has 16 reports, showing some contract terminations and contractor responsibility determinations. Only data posted after April 15 is available to the public; a Freedom of Information Act request is required to access any earlier information.

The Project on Government Oversight has asked GSA to release information prior to April 15 without requiring a FOIA request. But the paucity of reports is only one concern. Critics also say getting to those reports and navigating them is not easy.

Lee's blog takes issue with the required security code, called captchas.

"Captchas are designed to interfere with automated tools that facilitate malicious acts. But downloading government data is decidedly not a malicious act. Why are we trying to limit machines' ability to use this data?" he wrote.

Lee said most sites use captchas to keep people from posting unwanted information, not from accessing it. On FAPIIS, the coding keeps groups like his from creating programs that could search the database, pool the data and filter it for information.

"Government should be making its data more accessible and more machine-readable," he said.

POGO investigator Neil Gordon said in an April 18 blog that while the public FAPIIS database is a step in the right direction, "it has a long way to go before it can become a truly indispensable resource."

"Unfortunately, with the deficit hawks in Washington gearing up to slash spending on government accountability databases, FAPIIS, which, to put it mildly, has no love among contractors, may never get needed improvements," Gordon said. "That's too bad, because resources like FAPIIS are proven money-savers, helping to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse in federal contracts and grants."

Contractor trade associations have raised concerns about companies' information being available through the database.

POGO and others also question when and how reports submitted by contractors and other government money recipients will be available on FAPIIS, as it is supposed to be. Current search options seem to be centered on government-entered data only.

GSA officials acknowledged FAPIIS' shortcomings and said improvements will come as they consolidate several contractor reporting databases in the coming years. In the meantime, procurement officials are looking to improve the quality of information provided in those portals.

Office of Management and Budget policy analyst Karen Pica raised concerns, during a session last week at the GSA Expo in San Diego, that the public may not fully understand what they are reading.

She used an example of a posting on FedBizOpps for a Recovery Act project a portable toilet that would cost just under half a million dollars. The high cost of the item, which most people would assume to be much cheaper, was because the government required the "outdoor sanitation facility," which was a pre-cast concrete building, to withstand harsh weather, earthquakes and animal attacks. In other words, this was no ordinary portable toilet.

Contracting officers must remember that average Americans now have access to agencies' procurement information, and they must be clear in their description of purchases, Pica said. She advised a roomful of about 100 contracting officers to liken their explanations in government databases to how they would relay that information to family members.

Kate Oliver, who is working to consolidate all of GSA's acquisition reporting systems, said contracting officers have to be aware that the data they enter in places like the Federal Procurement Data System now ends up in the public domain.

"This data is now shared with tons of systems that are used all over the place," she said.

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