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Agencies slow to respond to requests for contractor data

Some federal procurement officers are refusing to publicly release contractor ratings data that may show agencies are not properly evaluating the performance of vendors who receive billion-dollar contracts, according to a consulting practice that regularly files Freedom of Information Act requests for the data.

In June, Jeff Stachewicz, founder of the FOIA Group, tried to obtain contractor evaluations from several agencies, including the departments of Defense, Energy and Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. Interior and NASA released their contractor performance ratings, a move that Stachewicz applauds and attributes to President Obama’s push for greater transparency.

But it took months for FOIA officers to respond to the requests. Stachewicz believes that’s because some contracting officials did not want the public to see incomplete ratings contained in the Past Performance Information Retrieval System, and the application used to capture the information, the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System. Some agencies, such as the Defense, Homeland Security and Justice departments, denied his requests. Several of his other inquiries are still pending.

To better understand what was holding up his inquiries, Stachewicz filed a FOIA request to obtain e-mail correspondence between various agencies and Defense, which controls the databases. Two weeks ago, Energy provided him nearly 30-pages of redacted e-mails to and from Defense officials, including one exchange of messages indicating Energy had trouble obtaining its information from Defense.

In that exchange, an Energy official asked, “Is there someone within DOD that can or will release DOE performance data?” In reply, a Defense official in the database’s program office stated that a senior procurement analyst at the Pentagon had advised that the office “will not provide any ratings information in electronic or other format. DOD has not released this information in the past.”

Stachewicz says the e-mail indicates Defense was trying to block the information from consideration for release under FOIA at other agencies.

“That was the smoking gun. That one response was, ‘We don’t want to give that data out.’ In my opinion, that’s not proper. They were deliberately trying to avoid the FOIA by not giving it to the agencies to make a decision,” he said. “This flies in the face of the Obama transparency doctrine. It’s a report card . . . Let them kind of man up to their score.”

Stachewicz said while contractors are accountable for their scores, procurement officials who manage the scoring systems also are responsible for maintaining up-to-date, accurate and complete assessments. The procurement officials “are not trying to hide what’s there. They are trying to hide what’s not there,” he said.

In the past, federal auditors have sharply criticized agencies for filing insufficient evaluations of contractors that failed to provide project managers with information necessary to pick the best suppliers. Part of the difficulty is that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy has not established a way to standardize ratings scales across agencies nor made thorough documentation a priority, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. Until such problems are resolved, the report said, the Past Performance Information Retrieval System “will likely remain an inadequate information source for contracting officers. More importantly, the government cannot be assured that it has adequate performance information needed to make sound contract award decisions and investments.”

Energy officials did not respond to several requests for comment.

Defense officials said it is not true that anyone stopped the department’s employees from releasing ratings information to the agencies. “If an agency has come to the CPARS or PPIRS program offices and requested a copy of the data they have submitted for their own review for potential FOIA release, we have provided it,” Defense spokesperson Cheryl Irwin said.

But “there are additional factors,” she said, listing several issues that have caused delays in distributing the ratings. Historically, for example, Defense has not released certain evaluations because of concerns about disclosing vendors’ competitive and confidential information. In addition, Stachewicz’s group submitted requests to many agencies, all of which landed in the Defense program’s office simultaneously.

“DoD coordinated with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to understand if they wanted to make a governmentwide decision about releasability of the data,” Irwin said. The office, which is part of the Office of Management and Budget, has not done so, but has held conference calls with several agencies to gain an understanding of how each is handling the requests, she said.

Because there is no governmentwide policy on publicly releasing data from the contractor ratings systems, Defense is sending the information to the agencies for them to make decisions about disclosure, Irwin added.

“It has taken a couple of weeks to clear up some of the confusion from [such issues] and accomplish the necessary coordination with OFPP,” she said.

OMB officials confirmed that OFPP is convening conference calls with certain agencies about providing contractor ratings in response to FOIA requests. But each agency has discretion in choosing whether to publicly release its own data. Officials added they are unaware of any cases in which Defense has not provided agencies with their own ratings data or pressured agencies not to disclose their data.

The Office of Government Information Services, a new organization within the National Archives and Records Administration responsible for resolving FOIA disputes, said it is working with OMB and several federal agencies to examine procedures for consistently responding to FOIA requests for access to contractor performance ratings.

Full article by Aliya Sternstein, NextGov

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Travis Wheeler works in marketing at Technical Communities, the leading GSA sales and marketing partner for technology companies.

18 comments

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