In its May 2014 report [pdf], the GAO found that the total number of contractor suspension and debarment actions continues to rise, more than doubling from 1,836 in FY 2009 to 4,812 in FY 2013. At a high level, the increase in suspension and debarments tracks the dramatic rise in federal contract spending. Looking at the data more closely suggests that all is not doom and gloom. Between 2012 and 2013, suspension actions increased by less than six percent. There were fewer debarments in 2013 than there were in 2012, and the decrease in some agencies is significant.

The 2014 annual report published by the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee [pdf] reflects these figures. According to this report, there were 836 suspensions and 1,722 debarments in FY 2012. There were 883 suspensions and 1,715 debarments in FY 2013. The number of suspension actions increased by less than six percent and the number of debarments decreased slightly from 2012 to 2013. The percentage of proposed debarments that became actual debarments also decreased.

One factor limiting the significance of GAO’s figures is that the data comes from only six agencies—Commerce; Health and Human Services; Justice; State; Treasury; and FEMA. Each of these agencies had received specific guidance from GAO to improve their suspension and debarment programs. The number of HHS contractor exclusion actions increased dramatically, but actions by Commerce and Treasury decreased dramatically. ISDC data on other civilian federal agencies points out the selection bias in GAO’s figures. According to ISDC’s report, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Social Security Administration, and the Department of Labor had no suspensions, proposed debarments, debarments, or administrative agreements.

There are a number of possible explanations for the slowdown in the number of suspensions and debarments. One factor may be the increased use of administrative agreements, which allow contractors to remain eligible for federal contracts if they agree to implement specified compliance measures. There were a total of 54 administrative agreements reported in 2012. In 2013, the number increased to 61.

Apart from the figures, ISDC’s report emphasizes for the first time that the increase in the number of suspensions and debarment is not a measure of success for federal agencies.

Elizabeth Sebesky