Sunshine advocates criticize government contractor database

New public website includes no pre-April info and is tough to navigate and full of unnecessary warnings, groups say.

Organizations that promote government openness are giving low marks to the new public version of a database that tracks government contractors' performance.

The chief strike against the new version of the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System is that it only includes information on contractor performance posted after April 15, when the system went live.

So searches on companies with past scandals yield no juicy results. There is no entry for Blackwater Worldwide, now called Xe Services, for instance, despite the fact that six guards working for the security contractor were charged in federal court for a 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqis dead.

Watchdogs are also complaining that the website itself is confusingly put together, difficult to navigate, and filled with unnecessary security requirements and warnings.

One watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, went so far as to say the FAPIIS site "may be the worst government website we've ever seen," in a particularly virulent blog post.

"It's unclear to me whether the programmers responsible for this interface had ever actually used the Web or simply had it described to them," the post's author, Sunlight staffer Tom Lee, quipped bitterly. "Either way, whoever built this should be embarrassed. Whoever managed the project should be embarrassed. Whoever signed off on delivery should be embarrassed!"

A spokesperson for the General Services Administration, which developed and manages the public site, declined to comment on the criticisms Tuesday.

Getting to the FAPIIS site itself requires several links -- two of which produced security warnings on a Nextgov laptop. Users must also fill out a new "captcha" verification, typing in a string of letters that are difficult to decipher against a black-and-white grid background, with each contractor search.

Searches often yield dozens of results for the same contractor, at least one for each division or subsidiary, and often multiple results for different contracts held by the same subsidiary, making it extremely time consuming to research a company's full record.

The long-sought public version of the contractor performance database was inserted into the 2010 Supplemental Appropriations Act by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

The site is designed to list past findings of contractors' liability in administrative, civil and criminal proceedings, and whether they've ever defaulted on a federal contract, or been suspended or disbarred from contracting with the federal government.

The Project on Government Oversight noted that the site's search function requires four letters of a company's name, making it impossible to find information on Xe, IBM or KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary, if the researcher doesn't know those companies' business identification numbers, another search option.

" 'Lockheed Martin' produced a list of more than 300 companies, approximately 200 of which were named 'LOCKHEED MARTIN CORPORATION' but with different DUNS numbers," the open government group went on to complain. DUNS numbers are nine-digit identification numbers the federal government requires for a company to receive grant or contract money.

"The rest were various Lockheed subsidiaries, some of which were also listed multiple times with the same name (give or take a comma, period, 'Inc.,' or 'Corp.') but different DUNS numbers," the group said.