In competitive acquisitions, it is common for solicitations to require offerors to conduct surveys of their past and present customers using standard questionnaires developed by the contracting office. Offerors are typically instructed to send the questionnaires to their customers with instructions to send the completed surveys to the contracting office. This information is then used to evaluate the offeror past performance. In effect, individual contracting offices have shifted the burden for collecting information about offeror past performance to the public.
The problem with this practice is that it is done without regard for the requirements of the Paperwork Reduction Act (44 U.S.C. 3501 et seq.) (PRA). The PRA imposes a requirement on Federal agencies to obtain approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before collecting information from 10 or more members of the public. 44 U.S.C. § 3502 defines “collection of information” as—
“the obtaining, causing to be obtained, soliciting, or requiring the disclosure to third parties or the public, of facts or opinions by or for an agency, regardless of form or format, calling for either--
(i) answers to identical questions posed to, or identical reporting or recordkeeping requirements imposed on, ten or more persons, other than agencies, instrumentalities, or employees of the United States; or
(ii) answers to questions posed to agencies, instrumentalities, or employees of the United States which are to be used for general statistical purposes…”
As part of the approval process, 44 U.S.C. § 3506©(2)(A) generally requires that each agency—
“provide 60-day notice in the Federal Register, and otherwise consult with members of the public and affected agencies concerning each proposed collection of information, to solicit comment to--
(i) evaluate whether the proposed collection of information is necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the agency, including whether the information shall have practical utility;
(ii) evaluate the accuracy of the agency's estimate of the burden of the proposed collection of information;
(iii) enhance the quality, utility, and clarity of the information to be collected; and
(iv) minimize the burden of the collection of information on those who are to respond, including through the use of automated collection techniques or other forms of information technology”
OMB approval of a proposed collection of information or recordkeeping requirement is manifested in the issuance of a valid OMB control number. FAR 1.106 contains a list of approved information collections and OMB control numbers relating to Federal acquisition. The list includes, among other things, solicitation provisions requiring offerors to provide certain types of information in their proposals to the Government. For example, the requirement for offerors to provide certified cost or pricing data or data other than certified cost or pricing data is approved under OMB Control Number 9000-0013. The approval granted by OMB is not permanent, which is why the FAR Council will periodically publish their intent to request an extension of an existing OMB clearance in the Federal Register and provide an opportunity for public comment. Denial of OMB approval would render the information collection or recordkeeping requirement unlawful and, arguably, unenforceable if contained in a solicitation provision. To this point, 5 CFR 1320.6 states:
(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no person shall be subject to any penalty for failing to comply with a collection of information that is subject to the requirements of this part if:
(1) The collection of information does not display, in accordance with § 1320.3(f) and § 1320.5( (1), a currently valid OMB control number assigned by the Director [of OMB] in accordance with the [Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995] Act; or
(2) The agency fails to inform the potential person who is to respond to the collection of information, in accordance with § 1320.5( (2), that such person is not required to respond to the collection of information unless it displays a currently valid OMB control number.
In addition to periodically requesting the extension of existing OMB approvals for collections of information, the FAR Council must address compliance with the Paperwork Reduction Act in FAR rules published in the Federal Register. Typically, the Federal Register notice will either state that the rule does not contain any information collection requirements or that any information collection requirements are currently covered by an existing OMB clearance. If the FAR Council is imposing a new information collection requirement, the notice will contain an estimate of the administrative burden and solicit public comments.
One need only look at the nearest competitive solicitation to conclude that contracting offices don’t pay much attention to these requirements. Despite the public protection provision of the PRA, it is unlikely that offerors will exercise their rights for fear of reprisal. As a result, the public will continue to absorb this administrative burden—a burden that is ultimately passed on to the Government in the form of higher overhead costs.