A new program that consolidates public information about federal contracts in the hands of a private company has some researchers worried that keeping tabs on government deals with corporations will be harder than ever.
Last year the General Services Administration turned over operation of the Federal Procurement Data System, a central database of information about federal contracts, to Global Computer Enterprises (GCE) of Reston.
The company, which could earn more than $24 million over seven years, will design and operate a new electronic data repository that GSA officials say will be more accurate, more timely and easier to search than the GSA-run system in place since 1979.
The database is an important tool for journalists and academics who use it to track the billions of tax dollars the government spends annually on deals with companies. Businesses turn to it to keep an eye on competitors.
The new system, scheduled to begin in October, represents "the most advantageous solution for the taxpayer," said David A. Drabkin, GSA deputy chief acquisition officer. "You'll be able to get more information, you'll be able to get it quickly, and you can rely on the accuracy of the information."
One big improvement is that fiscal 2004 contracting data should be available by December; last year's data were not ready until May, Drabkin said. The database also will contain fewer errors because information will be entered at the same time a contract is awarded or updated, rather than days or weeks later, he said.
In some cases, the information will come at a higher cost, Drabkin conceded. Although prices still are being negotiated, the contractor will almost certainly charge more than the government did for tailored searches, he said.
It is the predictions of higher cost and fears of reduced access that have made some regular users anxious. A few are already chafing at reports -- which Drabkin calls unfounded -- that a year's worth of contracting data, formerly available for less than $2,000, could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
"How much is this going to cost?" said Aron Pilhofer, database editor for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit watchdog group. "We just don't know. . . . All I want is the raw data."
Under the new system, the raw contracting data will bypass GSA and go directly from each federal agency to GCE, Drabkin said. It will no longer be available publicly, although a formatted version can be bought from the contractor.
"I've seen reports that somebody claims that it's going to cost them $35,000," Drabkin said. "That's crap. . . . I don't know what we'll ultimately negotiate, but it's a tenth of that or less."
Ray Muslimani, president of GCE, said the firm makes its money designing computer systems, not selling data. "The costs will be very similar to the costs that were charged in the past," he said.
Drabkin said fees will be based on costs of producing the information and the contractor will not share the revenue with the GSA.
Stan Z. Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a contractors association, said businesses will not object to paying more as long as they get better information.
Forty types of reports, including compilations of contracts awarded to small or minority-owned businesses, will continue to be free, Drabkin said. Federal agencies and members of Congress can search the entire database at no charge.
Still, some government contracting experts say the GSA effectively has exempted the centralized data from the Freedom of Information Act by allowing a private contractor to control it. Gathering the data through FOIA requests to each federal agency is impractical, they say.
"It seems to me to be wrongheaded for the government to intentionally take data that they have been generating and give it to a contractor for the purposes of not disclosing it," said Steven L. Schooner, a professor at George Washington University Law School. "That sounds like they are hiding it."
Angela B. Styles, a former Office of Management and Budget official who oversaw federal procurement policy, said the new system may not conform to federal law that says, in part, that the contracting information "shall be transmitted to the General Services Administration."
Drabkin said Styles was misreading the statute. In any case, she approved the new system when she was still at the OMB, he said.
"Right now people are talking about something they haven't seen yet," he said. "This is an elegant solution and once we field it, people are going to be thrilled, not disgusted and not angry."