A database for multi-million-dollar Pentagon contracts is geographically challenged, and has repeatedly confused the Central Asian petro-state of Turkmenistan for the American petro-state of Texas.
Hundreds of Pentagon contracts appear to have been wrongly categorized in the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS), the central statistical database of all US government contracts. Defense spending specialists now say there are “significant concerns” about the reliability of Pentagon contracts in the FPDS and warn that “bad data” can mislead decision makers.
According to the FPDS, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on contracts where the Place of Performance (PoP) is listed as Turkmenistan. But an investigation by EurasiaNet.org revealed that a large number of these contracts were actually for work carried out in the US state of Texas, not Turkmenistan.
The error came to light after the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report in May, titled “Department of Defense Contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq: Background and Analysis.”
The report, using data culled from the FPDS, asserted that the Department of Defense (DoD) spent $180.5 million on contracts performed in Turkmenistan in 2010, apparently $23.7 million more than was spent in Pakistan in the same year.
Turkmenistan plays a small but significant role in the US/NATO campaign in Afghanistan, acting as a refueling hub for goods and services used in the war effort. However, Ashgabat would probably balk at the notion that the DoD carried out work worth $421 million in the country from 2005-2010.
The error appears to have occurred due to identical country and state codes for both the Central Asian state and Texas – TX. As a result, some contracts that are listed on the FPDS as work performed in Turkmenistan are, on close examination, for services as varied as landscaping done in Fort Worth, Texas, and for a 2008 order for fuel deliveries to various locations in the United States worth $177.7 million.
Diane Merriett, a spokeswoman for US General Services Administration (GSA), the agency that manages the FPDS, said the veracity of data submitted to the FPDS by DoD is not GSA’s responsibility. “DoD awarded the contracts and is responsible for the data [entered] in the Federal Procurement Data System. GSA’s Office … manages the Federal Procurement Data System, but the issues raised in the inquiry are not system issues, but reporting issues, best addressed by DoD contracting officers,” Merriett said on June 25.
DoD representatives downplay the glitch. “This is nothing nefarious - just human error,” Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said on June 30.
“There are separate data elements on the screen in Federal Procurement Data System for Place of Performance to identify City, State, Zip+4, and Country, very clearly labeled for each. Once the user inputs the zip+4, FPDS will automatically pull up the US city, state, and put US
in the country code,” Irwin explained.
“However, if they go to the Country code data element and type in a code that matches one on the master list for countries (i.e., TX as the two character code for Turkmenistan); it will then pull in that corresponding country,” Irwin continued. “Please note that if they actually try to look up the country code in FPDS to ensure they've put in the correct one, they will see the full country name that they are choosing.”
Although it sounds relatively fool-proof, a random sampling of contracts performed by EurasiaNet.org indicated that potentially hundreds of contracts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars appear to be caught up in the confusion over Turkmenistan and Texas.
Moshe Schwartz, a specialist in the Defense Acquisition Policy Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division at the Congressional Research Service, is the author of the May CRS report. He told EurasiaNet.org that the FPDS is a vital tool for the US government, but warned that its usefulness is being compromised by “bad data.”
“Many researchers from other countries have expressed what a great tool FPDS is and how such a public database does not exist in most other countries. FPDS is a great example of creating transparency in government operations,” he said.
“However, there are significant concerns regarding the reliability of the information in the database, Schwartz said. “These concerns make it difficult to use to the data in FPDS to make specific policy decisions. Many analysts have suggested that FPDS should generally be used only to understand high-level trends at best, and should not be relied upon to draw detailed conclusions.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.