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Looking Through a Window Into a Room Full of Junk (A Capitol Hill Sketch)

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 29 2009

The Senate's ad hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight held a hearing this morning. The subject: "Improving Transparency and Accessibility of Federal Contracting Databases." Senator Robert Bennett spoke for many of us today when he sat up on the dais in room 342 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and rubbed his temples over, and over, and over, and over again.

What prompted the subcommittee to convene today (if you can call attendence by two senators, Bennett [R-UT] and Chair Claire McCaskill [D-MO], a "convening") is a particularly difficult problem: what the American public, watchdog groups, and even Congress' own investigators know about the thousands of firms and individuals who make their money as federal contractors is trapped within electronic databases. Eight databases. Or a dozen database, depending on who's doing the counting. Databases with names like FPDS and ORCA and PPIRS, the last of which goes by the adorable nickname of "Peepers."

All told, there are a million lines of code involved. But there's really no all told here, because the databases don't talk to one another. For example, FPDS, the Federal Procurement Data System doesn't communicate with EPLS, which stands for Excluded Parties List. Which means that website -- heralded as the American public's window into the inner-workings of government, but powered by FPDS -- doesn't even know that contractors contained within it have been banished from government service for defrauding the United States government or otherwise behaving badly. What's more, on some of these legacy systems, a search for Contractor X, Inc. won't return results for Contractor X Inc. The shorthand for that particular wrinkle came to be known, during the hearing, as "the comma problem."

In fact, GAO's William Woods explained to the senators, the poor state of those databases meant that when his agency was asked by Congress to detail how many contractors were billing the United States government for work in Afghanistan and Iraq, the government watchdog group was forced by technology to admit its ignorance. "We could not answer those questions," said Woods. How many KBRs are at work in American war zones, being paid with taxpayer dollars? How many Blackwaters? Dunno.

Everyone was in agreement that that status quo is unacceptable. And so the question became, what do we do now? Enter problem number two.

The General Services Administration, which serves, more or less, as the government's fixer, has put out a call for, yes, a federal contractor, to right what's wrong with the federal contracting tracking system. That came as news to the assembled experts. Seated before Bennett and McCaskill were GAO's Woods, OMB Watch's Adam Hughes, and A.R. Trey Hodgkins III of TechAmerica, an industry group for technology contractors. Did you know that GSA has begun building a new federal contractor database, a system that will make it so the systems can talk to one another and that the absence of a comma won't bring a search screeching to a halt? Nope, said Woods. Nope, said Hughes. Nope, said Hodgkins. "Well," said McCaskill, "that's kind of scary."

One who was aware of the GSA plan was Vivek Kundra, Chief Information Officer of the United States and, as Bennett called him, "that fellow from OMB." Testifying in the hearing's second round, Kundra celebrated the President's commitment to transparent government.
"I'm all for full transparency," said an impassioned Bennett, "if the system works!" The junior senator from Utah went for the temples again, giving them a good massage. Of course, said Kundra. McCaskill brought out a chart, a jumble of boxes and arrows showing the government's plan for overseeing the overhaul of federal contracting oversight, no doubt itself a multi-million government contract. One of the highlights: a public-facing component, accessible with a somewhat mysterious password.

"This is the governance structure," explained McCaskill, "and I can't tell who's in charge. Who's the boss?" She continued. "If there's a horrible article on the front over of the Washington Post, who is [OMB Director] Peter Orszag going to call first?" He'd call the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, responded Kundra. Well, unless it's about the contract itself, in which case it's GSA. Unless, of course, it's about the technology behind the contract, in which case it's OMB's e-government office, explained the CIO.

Rub, rub.

Trying to nail more Jello to the wall, Bennett asked the assembled experts just what sort of company we might expect to pick up the contract to build a contractor database. "Are we looking at Booz Allen Hamilton? Are we looking at Microsoft? I have no idea." Until the bids are in, explained OMB Watch's Hughes, it's impossible to know. Take the redesign project, he said. "Some of the names that came up, particularly Smartronix," the winning bidder, "I had never heard of." At one point, Bennett thought his microphone had been switched off. He was overheard pleading with McCaskill, "Who is going to do this, this contract?"

As the hearing wrapped, both McCaskill and Bennett seemed pleased that, at least, the Office of Management and Budget had stepped up to claim responsibility, even if it was partial responsibility, for overhauling the federal contracting database system. "Thank you," Bennett told CIO Kundra, "for your willingness to come into this mess."