A new procurement announcement from the General Services Administration (GSA) has confirmed that the U.S. federal government is seriously considering a new, open future for the way contractors and grantees are identified.
Dun & Bradstreet, Inc., enjoys a protected and profitable monopoly on information about federal contractors and grantees. Contractors and grantees must register with GSA in order to receive awards and funding from any federal agency. On behalf of the entire federal government, GSA pays Dun & Bradstreet to run the registration system. The system assigns each contractor and grantee a DUNS Number – a nine-digit, unique alphanumeric code.
DUNS Numbers are the key to contract and grant spending data. Without DUNS Numbers, it’s difficult or impossible to make sense of the federal government’s contracts and grants – over $1 trillion in 2016.
For over twenty years, under a frequently-renewed contract with Dun & Bradstreet, GSA has allowed Dun & Bradstreet to retain ownership of the DUNS Number. Because the DUNS Number is proprietary, Dun & Bradstreet is able to sell federal spending information as its own product. Nobody is permitted to download or use information encoded in the DUNS Number without licensing it from Dun & Bradstreet.
In 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported, “GSA believes that Dun & Bradstreet effectively has a monopoly for government unique identifiers that has contributed to higher costs” (page 2). At the time, however, there was no alternative to the DUNS Number.
That has changed. The Legal Entity Identifier (LEI), a nonproprietary, freely-downloadable identification code, is being adopted by other government agencies around the world, and GSA’s 18F technology team has figured out how the LEI could seamlessly replace the DUNS.
GSA’s contract with Dun & Bradstreet to manage contractor and grantee registration will expire next year and be recompeted. Last February, GSA issued a public Request for Information (RFI) asking the tech industry to provide input on how this contract should change in the future. The RFI is a standard step in preparation for issuing a final Request for Proposals (RFP), which will then formally invite Dun & Bradstreet and its competitors to submit bids for a new, five-year contract to manage the registration system.
Many of the responses to last February’s RFI told GSA that it should move away from a proprietary identification code and replace it with an open one instead. For example, the main trade association of tech companies serving the federal government, ACT-IAC, told GSA:
[P]roprietary entity identifiers commonly restrict the use of entity identifiers outside of their licensed user base (e.g., [Dun & Bradstreet] does not permit the commercial reuse and redistribution of D&B data, which includes [the DUNS] Number) or have overall restrictions of data without the license option. This inhibits certain reuse by other parties, supply chain partners, agencies, and other data consumers who are not subject to the proprietary license agreement and minimizes the ability to have transparent data that is openly accessible. A truly open unique entity identifier and system that supports transparent [federal spending data, including contracting data] means that the identifier and all associated data is free from restrictions, is license free, and is open for use by all users, indefinitely. An internationally standardized unique entity identifier that is non-proprietary and provides such an open standard is freely available and is thereby reusable by all parties. In addition, an open standard, non-proprietary identifier promotes open collaboration on relevant system and process enhancements and requirements. (Page 13.)
And now, GSA has reacted to that input. And it’s clear GSA is listening.
On Thursday, October 19th, GSA issued a second RFI. Alongside that, GSA also published a Performance Work Statement (PWS), which provides greater detail on how GSA wants the next five years of contractor and grantee registration to be handled. Responses to this newly-issued RFI and the PWS are due by November 20, 2017.
The new documents confirm GSA is seriously considering ending Dun & Bradstreet’s monopoly. Four key statements show its new view of how entity validation should work in the future.
- The new RFI confirms that “the government is considering different implementation options” for the identification code for federal contractors and grantees (page 1). One option is to use its service provider’s ID number as the official one throughout government. That is how the DUNS Number works today: Dun & Bradstreet provides the government’s registration service for contractors and grantees, and Dun & Bradstreet’s number is the official identification code for all systems that track awards, government-wide. The other option is to adopt a new, government-wide identification code number and have the service provider’s internal system “map” to it. This confirms that GSA is considering alternatives to today’s DUNS monopoly.
- The new PWS asks for responding contractors to “clearly identify all data elements or other information or materials, to include deliverables to be provided to the Government under this Contract/Task Order, which the offeror intends to provide with limited or restricted rights (as such terms are defined in the FAR 52.227-14), and restrictions on the Government’s data rights will be considered in the proposal evaluation as it relates to the overall value to the Government” (pages 12-13). Translation: GSA wants to know, up front, if the new system will use unrestricted data elements, or if the new system will remain stuck with a monopoly identifier like the DUNS Number.
- The new PWS specifies that the new system should use an identifier that is “available for public use at the federal government’s discretion” (page 15). This seems to be a significant change from the current system. The DUNS Number is currently not available for public use at the federal government’s discretion. Instead, its public reuse is restricted by the terms of the current contract between GSA and Dun & Bradstreet. The current contract does not give the government any discretion to make the DUNS Number freely available as open data for public use. GSA clearly hopes to move beyond a monopoly identifier to one that is more freely reusable. However, this specification does not guarantee that Dun & Bradstreet’s monopoly system will be ended and a new system procured, because the RFI also contemplates that there may be “exceptions to the contents of the PWS.” In other words, GSA does not insist that the winning bid to manage its registration system must fulfill every requirement of the statement. For Dun & Bradstreet, this one is a toughy.
- The new PWS recognizes that “SAM currently has data restrictions related to the use of Dun & Bradstreet data” (page 26). Thus, GSA acknowledges that the current DUNS monopoly presents restrictions on spending data, and will consider these restrictions as one strike against Dun & Bradstreet’s proposal to continue the status quo.
Instead, GSA should insist, as part of its recompete process, that whoever runs the registration system for the next five years must allow taxpayers and the public to freely download and use federal contract and grant spending information.
Proprietary identifiers and open data are on a collision course. Last week’s GSA statements suggest open data is winning.