IRE14: How to find stories in government contracting data

This is part of a series of posts from the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 conference. Follow along with the conference on Twitter with #IRE2014. Here’s the full schedule and a list of all conference tipsheets.

How to find stories in government contracting data

Speaker: Danielle Ivory, business-government at The New York Times and formerly at Bloomberg

The basics

  • Federal contracting spending more than doubled to about $541 billion from fiscal 2001 to 2008
  • About 70 percent of federal contracts are defense spending

Overview of search sites for federal contracts

  • This is the best place to search for information before the contract is awarded. Find RFPs, pre-solicitations, etc. Use the advanced search.
  • Search contract data with a variety of terms.
  • Federal Procurement Data System: Search contract data with a variety of terms.
  • Sunlight Foundation: : Search contract data with a variety of terms. User friendly interface.
  • Contracts: To get the actual contract, file a FOIA/records request.

Part 1: Before the award

  • Will it be a competitive contract or a non-competitive? A contracting officer for the agency generally puts out a a request for proposals (an RFP)
  • And then companies compete for the work

Non-competitive contracts

IRE14: Federal contract J&A

The justification and approval for a federal no-bid contract.

  • When do they happen: There may be only one company that offers the service. For example, the government may have
  • The government must justify why a contract is not competitive. There are eight reasons. Including: Short timeline
  • To find the government’s justification, search for the J&A, the justification and approval. That’s a box to check on the advanced search page. Some of them are not helpful. Like the one in the photo.
  • J&As are rich places to find story leads and information.

Part 2: The government awards the contract

  • At that point, lots of information becomes public. First, the winner’s name.
  • But remember, it’s really hard to find out before hand who wins the contract. The contract officer is prohibited by law from telling people before hand.
  • If you’re following the contract and you want to get the scoop, talk to Congress. The contracting office sometimes tells the representative whose district is where the work will be done. And Congress is a lot leakier than the contracting office.

Where to find contract information after the award

How to localize federal contract data

  • On and the FPDS site you can search based on place of performance (where the work is being done) or by the place of the vendor.

Things to watch for

  • Competition is always something to look for. If its listed as full and open competition, how many bidders did they have.

The losers

  • The companies that lose a contract bid are usually mad. They’re especially mad if they are the company that had the contract previously and have lost it in the new award.
  • Look for protests. How to get them:
  • The agency: Make a direct agency request. It usually requires a FOIA. It is absolutely public record. Ask for all the protesting documents and the protest decisions.
  • The GAO: Most companies when they lose an award will go to the Government Accountability Office, which has a protest unit. For companies that lose an incumbent contract, they can file a protest with the GAO and immediately get a stay on the new award and they can continue the work under the old contract. The GAO protests are very useful. They must come out within 100 days and they are very readable. The only way to see the actual bids made for contracts is through the GAO or lawsuits.
  • The court: The loser files a suit in federal court. Search civil suits on Pacer.


  • Subcontracting data is very opaque. A rule was passed recently that the first level of subcontractors over a certain amount needs to be publicly reported. That information should be available at
  • The government wants to award 23 percent of prime contracts to small business. The definition of small business changes by industry. It’s defined by the Small Business Administration under “small business standards.” Usually, a small business means less than $7 million in annual revenue or less than 500 employees.
  • At Bloomberg, she searched the federal contracting database every morning. Federal contracting was her beat.


How to make a local public records request

All the databases listed above are for federal contracts. For local contracting data, you’ll need to make a public records request to the city, county or police department that you cover. Here’s a template for how you might make that request. It’s important to include the fields you’d want in the database.

I’m requesting a spreadsheet or CSV file with the following information for all contracts with a start date between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2014:

ID number (other unique identifying number for the contract)
Project description
Vendor name
Vendor address
Vendor city
Vendor state
Vendor zip code
Vendor phone number
Agency name
Agency contract officer name
Agency contract officer email address
Date signed by vendor
Date signed by agency
Contract end date
Competitive bid (yes/no)
Base contract value
Contract modified (yes/no)
Final total paid under the contract




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