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Playing Monopoly, Government Contracting-Style!

Posted By Guy Timberlake, The American Small Business Coalition, LLC, Sunday, November 02, 2014
Updated: Sunday, November 02, 2014

Playing Monopoly, Government Contracting-Style!

The report issued by the Government Accountability Office in July 2012 begins this way:

"In recent years, the government’s reliance on DUNS numbers has increased significantly. There has been a dramatic increase in the number and types of entities that are required to have DUNS numbers to do business with the government. As GSA has increased its use of the DUNS number and business information services, its costs have increased from about $1 million in 2002 to approximately $19 million per year under the current contract, a sole-source contract awarded to Dun & Bradstreet in 2010 for a 3-year base period with options for 5 additional years—the contract now totals up to $154 million."

It's not as if this is new information since it's been discussed by Government and Industry for years. From the perspective of Industry, it's just one of those necessary evils of engaging with Uncle Sam. Why the 'necessary evil' reference? One of the first things new contractors must deal with is the incessant pestering and scare tactics of Dun & Bradsteet telemarketers who all too often omit the fact that acquiring and maintaining a DUNS is "...absolutely free for all entities doing business with the Federal government. This includes current and perspective Contractors, Grantees, and Loan recipients." It doesn't stop then since I receive updates from literally hundreds of companies who convey the latest scam/spam calls they receive from D&B trying to 'scare' them into purchasing monitoring services all in the interest of protecting their business reputation. I've been told by several companies they were made to feel as if it (the purchase) were a requirement for obtaining or keeping their DUNS number.

What about that business reputation D&B so often eludes too? How many companies doing business with Uncle Sam actually have information on their D&B profiles and how much of it truly matters to any government agency? Aside from that which is uploaded when the profile is created what value does D&B provide when it comes to government contracting? What if there is no 'commercial' information available on your company because you never have and likely never will do commercial business? What if the commercial business you do (such as teaming and subcontracting) is not information that can or will be made available to D&B?  Again, how relevant is D&B to government contracting?

Here's another issue cited in the GAO report:

"Also, due to the proprietary nature of DUNS numbers, Dun & Bradstreet has placed restrictions on how GSA can use DUNS numbers. This limits the purposes for which the government can use the data and hampers the ability to switch to a new numbering system." Hmm.

Here's my question. How can a piece of data that is publicly reported in Government systems such as FBO.Gov, FPDS-NG and others be restricted from use by the public for any reason? For example, companies that compile government contracting data and make it available for a fee are apparently not allowed to use the DUNS number in their reporting which is pretty interesting since the only way to truly (and efficiently) capture historical award information is by using the Global DUNS Number. Whether using FPDS-NG, or a third-party system, if you don't capture company information at that level then your results are suspect. Why? Have you seen all of the company name variations listed? All it takes is for a comma to be left out, or a space added and voila -- your company has a new entity name courtesy of Uncle Sam. Nothing intentional, just a data entry thing that happens all of the time. I've seen companies with more than five variations of their name in FPDS-NG with awards under each. Pulling data on one would not get you the information on the others. The proprietary tie that binds is DUNS.

Would I love to see Uncle Sam get from under Dun & Bradstreet's thumb? Most definitely. Especially since their restrictions directly interfere with the ability of other companies, large and small, to conduct business using open source information. Maybe Federal Trade Commission should take a long hard look at the negative impact of this veritable monopoly on Government and Industry. After all, according to the GAO report "GSA believes that Dun & Bradstreet effectively has a monopoly for government unique identifiers that has contributed to higher costs."

Sounds like a good reason for increased scrutiny to me.

Here's the topper. Should GSA ever find a way to part ways with Dun & Bradstreet, one of the negotiated terms is that GSA would have to 'delete associated DUNS data when the contract with Dun & Bradstreet ends.'

Shouldn't that have been some indication this relationship would not be in the best interest of the Government?


The Chief Visionary

"The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it."

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