Are DUNS numbers the crack cocaine of ID systems (and is the UK the latest addict)?

Last month the US General Accounting Office, produced an excellent report on the use of Dun & Bradstreet’s proprietary DUNS ID system by the Federal Government, specifically the GSA, its procurement and administration arm. In a fairly devastating report, it explains why the ID system was problematic:

  • “GSA believes that Dun & Bradstreet effectively has a monopoly for government unique identifiers that has contributed to higher costs.”
  • “Due to the proprietary nature of DUNS numbers, Dun & Bradstreet has placed restrictions on how GSA can use DUNS numbers. This limits the purposes for which the government can use the data and hampers the ability to switch to a new numbering system.”
  • “DUNS numbers are not subject to transparency requirements such as Freedom of Information Act requests so it is difficult to determine independently the accuracy or comprehensiveness of DUNS information.”

They could also have added that they are highly unsuitable for the open government world which the US, the UK and over 50 over governments have signed up to, or that DUNS numbers do not map to legal entities (for example, every Walmart store has one), or that it requires governments to buy their own data back from D&B with very little value added. Together with the lack of provenance, this makes the system a Black Box of questionable quality, as the government is essentially reduced to taking the entire system (what the DUNS numbers represent, and how they are related) on trust, as a dumb consumer.

Unfortunately, the Federal Government and indeed US government at all levels have integrated the DUNS number at such a deep systematic level that it’s now genuinely difficult to wean itself off them.

As the GAO report explains, “In the event of a change, GSA and dozens of other agencies would have to modify their data systems, replace all DUNS-related data in those systems, and update policies and procedures that refer to DUNS numbers.”

In short, the Federal Government is addicted to the DUNS system, and like an addict that’s been on the crack for years, it’s going to be a tough, hard, long road to wean it off it.  However, it’s not only possible (and the DATA Act offers a possible route out), the alternative is much worse, because every year that it continues on the drug, it becomes more and more dependent, and moves further away from being a functioning member of the open society.

In many respects the US government’s reliance on DUNS numbers is understandable. When they were introduced in 1962, they probably seemed like a great solution to the government – hey, kids, try this; it’s fun, and will make all your problems go away. There is also the fact that in the US, legal entities are created by the individual States, not the Federal government, meaning that until OpenCorporates came along with an IP-free ID system it was difficult to find a common way of identifying them.

The UK government, however, has no such excuse. Not only does is it not some naive youngster, unaware of the problems, just trying it out ‘to see what it’s like‘, it also has a well-functioning system of national legal identifiers, created by its very only Companies House.

In fact, in the Prime Minister’s letter to Cabinet Ministers in July last year, in November last year, he wrote “Unique reference indicators [URIs] to be introduced by DBIS and HMRC beginning in December 2011. These will enable the public to track more easily the interaction between companies and government bodies“. And in fact in October, one month ahead of schedule, Companies House indeed published URIs for companies (disclosure: OpenCorporates was involved in the discussions about these identifiers, and advised on their construction).

In the blog post reporting on those URIs, we asked whether the government would actually use these identifiers (perhaps even using OpenCorporates’ reconciliation service to match the suppliers to the entities), or would it use the DUNS numbering system that was at that point just in limited use in the government?

Well, now we know. Earlier this year (in March, in fact), the government’s procurement service announced that “A new agreement is in place with Dun and Bradstreet for the provision of supplier information.  We are now using DUNS numbers as unique supplier identifiers for managing contracts, spend and supplier relations, simplifying processes and improving effectiveness.

An example of why this is a problem can be seen from a random enty on the Procurement Service’s supplier list (which, incidentally, unlike the US Federal Central Contractor Register doesn’t appear to be available as open data):


There’s the DUNS Number, right at the top. But how does this enable “the public to track more easily the interaction between companies and government bodies“. This doesn’t help us identify which company Adept Recruitment is (by the way it’s this one), or what type of company it is, and because of the proprietary nature of the DUNS number we can’t even use to to tie other data together.

But more than that, it means the Government Procurement Service probably doesn’t have that information, either. All it has is the DUNS number, and so if it needs anything more (the current status at Companies House, its credit rating, etc), instead of getting that for zero cost (in the case of Companies House) or very low cost (from any one of a number of suppliers), it has to go through Dun & Bradstreet, and pay its mark-up, which can be frankly whatever it wants.

So, was this a typical case of the government’s left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing? Perhaps, although we were warning senior people in the Cabinet Office (which is responsible for both the Government Procurement Service and the government’s Open Data program) back in November that the existing limited use of DUNS numbers was problematic, never mind further integration.

In addition the Prime Minister’s letter and subsequent roll-out of Companies House URIs was pretty clear, and at the very least this would appear to be something the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office should investigate.

Either way, the UK government is well on its way to becoming a full-fledged DUNS number addict, undermining its own open-data policies and leaving future governments with the pain and cost of getting clean.

3 thoughts on “Are DUNS numbers the crack cocaine of ID systems (and is the UK the latest addict)?

  1. This post ends in an open-ended manner. What’s the next step? Are you following up on this? Eager to read more…

    1. I think the next step is with the government (to explain their thinking) or with the Public Accounts Committee. Perhaps if a few citizens wrote to them they would investigate and get to the bottom of this.

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