Time is ripe to dump the DUNS, industry data group says

The Office of Management and Budget indicated at a recent DATA Coalition summit that they will conduct an alternatives analysis to the Data Universal Numbering ...

The Office of Management and Budget seems to be exploring possible alternatives to the proprietary standard that agencies have used for decades to identify companies and organizations that win federal grants and contract awards.

OMB leaders indicated at a recent DATA Coalition summit that they will conduct an alternatives analysis to the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) number, which the federal government uses through a contract with the company Dun & Bradstreet.

And the General Services Administration’s 18F team is developing an identification code that would temporarily help agencies move from the nine-digit DUNS number to another standard, according to Hudson Hollister, executive director for the DATA Coalition.

The costs and technical challenges of moving away from the DUNS to another system for identifying and tracking contractors would be simply too great, the Government Accountability Office said in 2012.

But Hollister said that environment is changing. There were no other alternatives four years ago.

“The GSA/18F technology team is working on it,” he said at the coalition’s DATA Act Summit in Washington May 26. “Both of the reasons why the GAO said that we can’t get rid of a proprietary ID … now no longer exist. The case is compelling that we need a fully non-proprietary system for the way that public spending information is reported and tracked and exchanged.”

Government agencies across the world are beginning to use a 20-digit code called the Legal Entity Identifier (LEI), Hollister said. The code, which is free for organizations and companies to use, is managed by the Global LEI Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland. Some U.S. agencies  already have requested the authority to begin using the LEI, he said.

“If the whole government magically switched to the LEI, we would be able to take a particular company and we could automatically match the information that it files with a public company with the SEC, the forms that it submits to the Environmental Protection Agency … all of its activities as a federal contractor, if it has federal contracts,” Hollister said.

But the DATA Coalition said it still sees some resistance to change from the administration.

The coalition said it invited a member of the General Services Administration’s 18F team to speak about the code it’s developing at its May 26 conference. The speaker had gotten preliminary approval from 18F to speak at the coalition’s conference, Hollister said.

“We also had support from GSA that it was okay to come and talk at our public conference,” he said during a speech at the conference. “We had support of all the top brass. However, OMB spiked it. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy got in touch with the GSA administrator and they said please don’t let your staffer come and talk at the DATA Coalition’s DATA Act Summit.”

The Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration would not confirm the coalition’s claims.

But Hollister said OMB and GSA’s response to the coalition’s conference shows their hesitancy to change.

“Now that the DATA Act is law and OMB [and] the Office of Federal Financial Management is working hard to implement it, we still see reluctance in other parts of the White House to follow the spirit of the law,” he told Federal News Radio. “The law doesn’t force us to move away from DUNS. It just gives OMB and Treasury the authority to say so. But [what]  we see within OMB, there is opposition to following the spirit of the law. There is reluctance to change.”

The Federal Acquisition Council released a proposed rule last November that asked for industry input on how government could stop using the proprietary numbering system from Dun & Bradstreet.

“The current requirement limits competition by using a proprietary number and organization to meet the identification needs,” the council wrote in the notice in the Federal Register. “Although the government does not intend to move away from use of the DUNS number in the short term, elimination of regulatory references to a proprietary entity identifier will provide opportunities for future competition that can reduce costs to taxpayers.”

The costs of using the DUNS number has grown over the past decade or more. As of 2012, GSA spent roughly $19 million a year on its contract with Dun & Bradstreet, compared to about $1 million in 2002, according to the most recent report available from GAO.

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