The government procured its own spending transparency website and the primary data system behind it on the same day last month the contract to manage the systems was set to expire, new documents show.
The move frees up previously contested federal contracting data, which will facilitate increased competition for future contracts, according to outside observers and the General Services Administration.
It’s unclear if the purchase became necessary to keep the site running or if the opportunity arose as a result of Global Computer Enterprises, Inc.’s financial instability, which led to a bankruptcy filing last month.
GCE in 2003 won an eight-year job “to develop, build and implement” a system for all federal procurement information, called the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation.
In 2011, the company won a sole-source contract to continue operating and maintaining the system, which it owned, because replacing it was deemed too large a task.
“Due to the proprietary nature of the technology, the only competitive alternative available to the government at that time would have been to replace the systems - i.e., a competitive award of a new contract to essentially build a new FPDS-NG from the ground up,” procurement documents released this week said.
“That alternative was rejected as cost prohibitive and technically insurmountable in favor of the sole-source follow-on contract,” the document said, again referring to the 2011 deal.
The operation and maintenance of USASpending.gov was also added to the contract at that time, making GCE the “owner of essential data rights” for both systems, which, though separate, now share information technology infrastructure built by GCE that is "known between the parties as the 'big data cloud,'" the documents said.
The most recent contract buys back the systems -- the USASpending website and the FPDS-NG data system behind it -- from Serendipity Now, the new name of the company formerly known as GCE, according to earlier procurement documents.
Nextgov was unable to reach the company, but in calling a published number for Serendipity Now heard a voice message for GCE.
The Labor Department and GSA last month bought GCE-owned financial systems for $24.5 million, after an inspector general raised concerns about the risks posed by the contractor’s potential instability, according to Federal News Radio.
The current contract is for $9.5 million for a two-month base period and a one-month option period, according to GSA. The agency negotiated the price down from the $14.2 million price cap cited in the justification for the sole-source procurement let on Sept. 30 -- the last day of fiscal 2014.
Allowing the the contract to lapse in September would have resulted in a “cessation of operations” in USASpending.gov and the Federal Procurement Data System on which it runs, according to the justification for awarding the contract without full competition.
“This, in turn, will substantially inhibit the government’s ability to effectively manage its operations and violate the federal reporting mandates,” the justification said.
“Upon award of this contract, the government will acquire unlimited rights in the custom-built core of FPDS-NG and USASpending,” the document said. Both systems “will be provided back to Serendipity as ‘government furnished property’ upon which it will continue to provide limited operation and management support services while the government can facilitate an effective transition and knowledge transfer to a new O&M contractor to avoid service interruptions.”
Cara Battaglini, director of communications for GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, clarified for Nextgov that the government always owned the data. “This acquisition ensures that we have ownership of the system as well as the data,” she said.
Hudson Hollister, founder of the Data Transparency Coalition, said he was happy to hear GSA bought back these systems.
Hollister’s group, which advocates on behalf of the private sector for open government data, has recommended new standards for government contracting information be open.
“Just as the data standards should be nonproprietary, there shouldn’t be any restrictions on republishing the data itself,” he said. “This information is public information. When you have government information that is legally public, it should be a public resource. It should be available to anyone.”
The Treasury Department is taking over management of USASpending from GSA and is in the process of designing a new website that is expected to go live in April. With the government's purchase of the website and data system, Treasury's developers have more to work with.