Next month, the reporting function of a key federal contracting data tool will be retired as officials push users toward a new tool on a new site destined to become the central hub for all government contracting.
Moving the reporting functions of the Federal Procurement Data System—and other parts of the larger transition—has led to widespread frustration and confusion among contracting officers and vendors alike. The program office managing the transition is hoping to quell these issues for future rollouts and through improved training sessions for users.
The General Services Administration is in the midst of an ambitious plan to consolidate every federal contracting tool—vendor registration, solicitations, contracts databases, past performance information, wage rates—on a single website.
The final site will be called SAM.gov—named for the System for Awards Management—but it won’t be the same as the current SAM.gov, where federal contractors go to register their companies before being allowed to bid on solicitations. The original SAM.gov is still live while the Integrated Award Environment, or IAE, team at GSA moves functionality for that and other tools to the beta.SAM.gov website.
“A branding specialist would say, ‘What were you thinking?’” Judith Zawatsky, assistant commissioner for the office of systems management in the Federal Acquisition Service, said of the confusion caused by operating both sites at once. “The real reason has to do with regulations and it’s a very simple and kind of nerdy answer: These functionalities are called out in regulation and they are called out by certain names.”
During a recent interview with Nextgov, Zawatsky noted the sole job of IAE is to ensure the rest of the federal contracting community—government contracting officers, vendors, grantees and the like—are in compliance with procurement regulations, such as the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
“A limiting factor that we had for naming conventions was to ensure that when somebody put something into the system and said, ‘Look, contracting officer, I have FAR clause ABC,’ that they were in fact doing that without a big footnote that said, ‘We know this is not what it’s called in the FAR but we’re giving you this information as if it were,’” she explained.
When the full functionality of SAM.gov is moved over to beta.SAM, the latter will lose the ‘beta’ prefix and contracting officers and vendors will be able to continue with business as usual without lawmakers having to adjust language in the regulations.
“The process is a little painful but once we get there the actual requirements for regulatory change and the change of a multitude of forms across government from every agency will be less,” Zawatsky said.
Zawatsky said the new site is on track to lose its “beta” designation in 2021, though she declined to give a hard timeline for the transition.
“I’m not comfortable giving a public date because we are tied to so many systems across government,” adding the team wants to wait until everyone in government is ready for the switch before announcing the transition date.
“The work is already taking place,” she said. “We’ve done some lift and shift … to prepare to be able to take the next step, so that we’re not just waiting until the last minute to get something cloud ready.”
In her office at GSA headquarters, Zawatsky has photos of empty, dusty data centers closed as part of this effort. GSA IT—the office of the chief information officer—confirmed the agency was able to close four data centers just from that initial lift-and-shift work.
One of the first major migrations to beta.SAM was the Federal Business Opportunities website, better known as FedBizOpps or FBO, which housed all federal government solicitations open to the public. FBO was shuttered over Veterans Day weekend 2019, with the data and capabilities shifted over to beta.SAM under the Contract Opportunities site, which Zawatsky and team fondly refer to as “the artist formerly known as FBO.”
But that transition was rocky, with users reporting long load times and timeouts, problems signing in through Login.gov, missing data and a confusing user interface. In the months after the initial transition, users in the federal contracting community voiced anger and concern, prompting GSA to do additional outreach and make iterative improvements to the new site.
Zawatsky said those lessons were not lost on the team and informed the strategy for the FPDS migration.
Between the lessons learned during the FBO transition and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zawatsky and team decided to make the March transition a “soft launch,” opting to move the four FPDS reporting functions over to beta.SAM but leave those capabilities live on FPDS.gov for the time being.
“It gives us more time to bring people along, it gives us more time to create additional training materials; we heard a lot through those who have tested it; we’ve been able to make some tweaks to it, and particularly tweaks to the training material,” she said. “It’s very, very hard to get someone to pay attention to the fact that the functionality will be there, but how you use it changes.”
This is not insignificant for those users, Zawatsky noted.
“A lot of the power users, their careers are built on the fact that they are power users of tools, and we’re moving their cheese a little bit,” she said. “We’re giving them stronger tools, better tools—instead of 30,000 rows of data, we’re going to give them 160,000 rows of data; instead of five years of historical information, we’re giving them 12 years of historical information; and we’re giving more ways in which to create reports. But, I’m not going to claim that the way you use those tools is the same.”
The move proved prescient, as the Data Bank tool on beta.SAM had some early hiccups, such as data not matching up with reports run through FPDS.gov.
Zawatsky said that specific issue is known and has to do with the reporting functions—and the data itself—residing in two places. At this time, the award data still rests in the FPDS database. Every night at midnight the systems sync, but if a user is looking for real-time data uploaded that day, the results from reports run through Data Bank will be incomplete.
Zawatsky also noted the Data Bank system has new data fields to help users refine their searches—these don’t always map directly to the fields in FPDS, which can cause discrepancies in the reports.
These issues are being addressed in the updated training materials, she said, and will be moot once all of FPDS—not just the reporting function—is migrated to beta.SAM.
For now, Zawatsky’s team is preparing to finish the soft launch started this spring: After October 17, users will no longer be able to run reports on FPDS.gov. The site will remain up for other functionalities—such as quick searches on contract awards—but only for a time.
FPDS is more than just a tool to run reports, Zawatsky noted, it’s the official system of record for all federal contract spending.
“You can imagine the complexity” of such a system, she said. “It’s not one you want to experiment with. We don’t get the opportunity for that to fail.”
The four reporting functions—administrative, static, standard and ad hoc—was a capability the IAE team was able to move and test without breaking the entire FPDS ecosystem.
“When there are discrete functionalities that we can move, we will move them and continue to iterate,” Zawatsky said. “Every bit of functionality that falls under the Integrated Award Environment will all come into that cloud-based platform,” including the rest of FPDS.gov, “but we’re moving functionality by functionality.”
And as they do, “We’re trying very hard with the FPDS data reports to bring the user along,” she said.
That means making sure users are informed about what is moving, when and how they will be able to get the same or improved capabilities after the transition. One key way GSA is engaging the community is through training sessions—the next is scheduled for Tuesday, September 15.
“Some of it is telling our story better and some of it is level-setting expectations,” she said, adding that the team is using an agile approach that includes iterative improvement after launch. That can initially be hard on users who want everything to work right away but results in a better product over time.
“What you get on Day 1 is not what you’re going to get on Day 30 or Day 45 or Day 60, so join us on this journey,” Zawatsky said.
While beta.SAM is expected to lose the beta in 2021, there is still a ways to go before GSA has a truly integrated award environment. Zawatsky said there is an internal timeline for all pieces of the transition, but much of it won’t be shared publicly, as the tail is too long and things like new laws and prolonged pandemics force plans to change.
That said, Zawatsky expects the remaining transition of all IAE capabilities to the new SAM.gov will go beyond 2021 but should be completed well before 2025.
The final site will include: FBO, under Contract Opportunities; FPDS, under Data Bank; the current SAM.gov; the grants site Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, CFDA; Wage Determinations Online, WDOL; Electronic Subcontracting Reporting System, eSRS; the past performance databases, the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, FAPIIS, Contractor Performance Assessment Reports System, CPARS, and Past Performance Information Retrieval System, PPIRS; and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, FFATA.