A panel of witnesses - including Cheryl Campbell, Senior Vice President of CGI Federal, testify at a House hearing on the implementation failures of the Affordable Care Act, Oct. 24, 2013. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The millions of gallons of oil that spilled from BP’s Deepwater Horizon well forced the company to pay billions of dollars in fines and to plead guilty to manslaughter. But in the database used by federal agencies to review contractors’ work, there is not a single negative review of the company, a congressional review found.

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s staff also found that CGI Federal, which built the troubled federal health-care exchange, is ranked as exceptional, even though the Obama administration ended its contract and found a replacement company to complete the work.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing Thursday, McCaskill (D-Mo.) cited both of those examples as embarrassments that illustrate how poorly the federal government reviews contractors’ work history. The system, she said, is “shockingly old and clunky” and incomplete because even egregious missteps go unreported by officials who would rather not have to deal with the fallout of posting a negative review about a company.

“Information about past performance and integrity is scanty, and what there is can be scattered across multiple databases,” McCaskill said during a hearing by the subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight. “Reports can be difficult to find or just plain wrong.”

“It’s weird to me that a contracting officer using a non-
public database would have less complete information about a contractor’s performance than somebody who just Googled them,” she said.

Federal officials told the committee that they have made great strides in compiling information on contractors’ past performance and improving training so that evaluations of contractors are objective and accurate.

“It is an issue that is taken seriously,” said Kevin Youel Page of the U.S. General Services Administration. “There are known improvements that are underway in terms of getting the quality and timeliness of reports up.”

The goal, he said, is to “mitigate the risk to government of entering into business with a vendor that is not capable or less capable of doing the work.”

But he said there are “no doubt miles to go.”

Officials from the Office of Management and Budget were also invited to testify, but they did not show in what McCaskill called a “willful disregard of legitimate government oversight.”

Frank Benenati, an OMB spokesman, said that no one was available to testify because of the president’s budget release this week but that the administration “believes strong financial and contracting oversight is critical.”

Michael Fischetti, the executive director of the National Contract Management Association, said in an interview that the problem has been around for years, and despite efforts to fix the system, it still can’t be counted on.

“It isn’t reliable, quite frankly,” he said. “And past performance should be one of the most important criteria in most cases.”

But Jim McCarthy, owner of AOC Key Solutions, which helps companies win contracts, said that often the quality of the employees matters most.

“It doesn’t matter what the company’s background is as much as the team the company has assembled,” he said.

McCaskill said the problem stems in large part from a reluctance by federal agencies to report when a contractor falls short.

“It’s almost like if a contracting evaluator gives negative information, they know they are going to get blowback from the contractor, right? And so it’s easier not to,” she said. “We let things slide because it’s too hard to fight it.”

She said her staff could not find any negative reports in the database for BP, which has been suspended from receiving federal contracts. And she said that the most recent assessment for CGI Federal ranked it as exceptional.

“Major screw-up — that’s probably all you needed to put in there,” she said. “The notion that there is no negative information about CGI Federal or the subsidiaries of BP in [the database] is embarrassing.”

BP declined to comment. CGI did not respond to a request for comment.