On April 4, the General Services Administration (GSA) will complete a major technology modernization project that started in 2012, picked up steam in 2016 and finally will come to completion after a six-month parallel test.
Memi Whitehead, the deputy assistant commissioner of GSA’s Integrated Award Environment, said all agencies will use the UEI, which is a government-owned identifier generated in SAM.gov, and are responsible for changing their systems across their business processes ranging from acquisition to finance.
“We’ve had a parallel operating environment for over six months where the agencies have had both the DUNS number and the unique entity ID available in all of the IT systems in the Integrated Award Environment (IAE),” Memi Whitehead said in an interview with Federal News Network. “They’ve been able to send and receive tests that’s allowed them to plan the timing of their own transitions. Even before that, we’ve been communicating with them sharing the specifications. This really has been a multi-year project and a multi-year transition.”
The government’s move away from DUNS numbers will end a 40-plus-year relationship with Dun & Bradstreet where the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to use the proprietary system to identify companies. 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.
GSA would give contractors a DUNS number free of charge, but it paid for the service on the front end.
In March 2018, GSA awarded Ernst & Young a five-year, $41.7 million contract to run the UEI initiative. Ernst & Young will provide services to validate the identity of each entity (company, individual, organization, etc.) wanting to do business with or receive assistance from the government, GSA stated in a release. The GSA said the contract will reduce unnecessary duplication across the government by ensuring individual agencies do not have to separately contract for these services, but will instead receive the service by way of SAM.gov.
UEI for the entire lifecycle of an award
The UEI is a 12-character alphanumeric identifier that is owned and managed by the government. It connects agencies and companies throughout the federal award lifecycle whether it’s writing a contract or managing a grant.
“The benefit that we see from the users’ perspective is that it’s going to be more convenient. They’re not going to have to go to multiple sites and they’re not going to have to interact with a third party directly. They’re going to be able to go to SAM.gov, provide the information or request a unique entity identifier, get the entity validation done and move on with whatever else they need to do,” Whitehead said. “That convenience factor, that ease of experience is something that we’re really looking forward to providing.”
Whitehead said there are several reasons the UEI implementation took so long. First, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council had to change regulations to remove references to DUNS numbers and replace them with UEI.
“That change allowed us to compete the validation and then decouple the fact that we were having an identifier, the thing that connects to the entity from the validation service, on the back end,” she said. “That’s a good thing over time that allows increased competition. It removes the proprietary nature of the identifier, and really means that no matter who in the future, were to provide the service, this huge giant governmentwide change only has to happen once.”
This one change, however, will impact seven IAE systems. GSA is planning down time on April 1 and 2 to implement the UEI changes.
Whitehead said it’s not just GSA’s system that need updating. Agencies have been developing, testing and ensuring they are ready for the move too over the past year.
“From the technical perspective, the agencies worked together to develop and design the changes. That was a really good process that was very interesting to watch because agencies came together and talked about what they needed to do, how they needed to do it, making sure that there wasn’t overlap with other identifiers, like the Social Security number,” she said. “Obviously, we had to create the thing to build the identifier, the generator on the backend. Just learning and peeling back the layers of the onion helped define all the different places where the DUNS number was used, and knowing that had to have a parallel insertion of a unique entity identifier. It’s been fascinating, certainly stressful at times. But we’ve got a really great team and the agencies have been great to work with.”
Preparing for challenge, hoping for the best
GSA has been working with agencies and talking about the move to UEI for the better part of the last year, displaying the UEI next to the DUNS number on SAM.gov.
Whitehead said GSA was trying to make the switch as easy and smooth as possible.
But, as GSA knows well, these changes can be fraught with challenges particularly in that first week.
“You hoped for the best and plan for the extremely focused support to the user. So we will be in a hyper monitoring, hyper paying-attention-to-everything phase, for the certainly for the first week,” she said. “We’ve got an integrated project team that’s ready to support users. We have folks from our IT support, from our hosting support and from all of the different aspects and facets that we need to make this work. We were planning for surge support around our service desk. We do expect that there will be those who are not aware of the change, and come in to do something on April 5 or April 6, then suddenly discover that it’s different than what they expected. So we anticipate some longer wait times at the help desk. But our focus is to really quickly identify what the major issues are and triage those. We’ve got planned windows so that we can make some changes fairly quickly, to iterate on anything that’s not working the way we need it to.”
Whitehead added GSA has posted information, videos, fact sheets and other helpful details about the transition to UEI from DUNS on its website. It also added a “big green button” that says “UEI transition help” so users can easily ask questions or solve problems.