OMB on deadline to deliver procedures for posting annual budget justification documents

A new law enacted last month requires the Office of Management and Budget to post their annual budget justification documents online. And to maintain a download...

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A new law enacted last month requires the Office of Management and Budget, in cooperation with federal agencies, to post their annual budget justification documents online. And to maintain a downloadable data set. OMB and Treasury have a year to develop the standards and procedures. For how this might actually happen, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to a former federal chief financial officer, now the managing director for the public sector at Grant Thornton, Doug Criscitello.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Doug, good to have you back.

Doug Criscitello: Great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: So this looks like another burden on whomever in federal agencies, the IT staff, the budget justification staff, whoever that is. So I imagine the program people, essentially, yet another launch of what looks like a new website for the government, it’ll probably be called, I don’t know yet. But what would it take to pull all this together both across a large department, let alone across the government?

Doug Criscitello: Well, OMB would be the central coordinating agency for this information. And the OMB already publishes a range of other budget documents on its website. So adding congressional justifications to that site should be fairly straightforward, requiring this machine readable format, the justifications in that format to be posted, or at least linked, I mean, it’s not necessarily a website, a separate domain altogether, it should enable better analysis and understanding of the information that’s captured in congressional budget justification feature.

Tom Temin: And justifications though, aren’t those verbal whereas the numbers are what might be in a spreadsheet or a database?

Doug Criscitello: Yeah, they can be. So the submission of budget justifications is accompanied by numerous formal and informal written and verbal interaction between agency and congressional officials. I mean, this is really where the sausage is sort of made, right. So hard to capture informal interactions in any coordinated way. But that said, I think there is something to be said for posting this data, somewhere out there where it’s readily searchable and usable.

Tom Temin: How would it work in the case of just any given program that has two components, say there are grants and dollars or benefits that are paid out, that’s one part of the budget. But then there’s the part of the budget for the staff, and operations of that program, I’ll make one up, for example, food stamps, there’s billions of dollars for SNAP program, but then there’s a whole apparatus that makes the SNAP program happen. You can repeat this across the government. So when agencies develop their budgets, do they have a separate discussion on how much should it be for the benefits or the grants or whatever it is, in addition to what it should be for the staff to operate it?

Doug Criscitello: Yeah, that’s a really good question. We don’t have our operational costs clearly linked to the programs that they support. I have a friend who likes to say, we know the price of everything that the government does, but we know the cost of nothing, because these programs require administrative resources to support their delivery, but there’s not those clear linkages. So the way that the data is structured right now, generally, there’s just amorphous administrative budgets, and separately, program dollars. And they’re largely tracked and reported separately. And hopefully, we’re headed toward a point where we have a better sense as to what these programs cost to deliver.

Tom Temin: Well, I can see where that could get fuzzy, without anyone being at fault here. For example, say you take to return the Agriculture Department. And I know that wasn’t your department. But say you have a technology staff at the department, a one day they might be helping the SNAP program, they might also be helping the next day, I don’t know, the Farm Service Administration with their IT needs or something. So it’s hard to divide people across various program channels, if they’re a central service.

Doug Criscitello: Yeah, it is hard, but we have technology systems today that enable departments to be able to do that. So it’s a question as to how seriously do we want to take that exercise, but it could be done.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Doug Criscitello, managing director for the public sector at Grant Thornton. And in the preparation of budget justifications, I guess they’re formally delivered by the secretary to OMB and by the OMB to the White House. I mean, the White House is the OMB but anyway. Who actually participates in the preparation and approval of those documents?

Doug Criscitello: So I’m an ex OMBer earlier in my career. At that organization, preparation of the president’s budget takes precedence over everything else. Now, I’ve also worked at a couple of federal agencies in the budget shops. And when you get there, you understand that preparation and submission of congressional budget justifications is the most important activity that those offices undertake each year. So look when I was at OMB, and this still occurs, right, OMB reviews the congressional budget justifications. But it’s really just a review to ensure that it’s consistent with the president’s budget. It’s not nearly as important to OMB as it is to the agencies. So that’s an interesting sort of dynamic. And I think from the OMB perspective, they want to make sure that all the information in the president’s budget is posted and available for public inspection. But this would be something new if OMB suddenly had a significant role in coordinating or acting as a clearinghouse for justifications.

Tom Temin: So gathering the justifications within a given department or agency, then that would come under, do you think the financial channel or who?

Doug Criscitello: I think OMB would probably, I guess it would sort of fall to the management gurus at OMB to figure out exactly how this is going to be set up. I think OMB would probably just want a website where it was directing researchers or staff, whoever wanted this information back to agencies sites where these documents were retained. One thing that’s tricky here, and this is something that you mentioned, the burden is on IT shops, this data would need to be, these aren’t just PDFs that would be posted, right. So they would be required to be posted in structured data format, which is, structured data as a researcher, it’s a good thing, right. Structured data is born to be analyzed. But it takes some doing to take all of the numbers in a think about it as a PDF, and put them in a usable format where the data can be analyzed.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so this is a challenging thing they’ve developed to put in front of agencies, maybe that’s why OMB and Treasury have a year to develop the standards and procedures here, as we mentioned at the top. And then agencies have varied records with respect to documents that go back many years, like exhibit 53s, and so forth. If you go from agency to agency trying to find the latest, say exhibit 53. Some places have them right out there. Some places they’re five years old, some places don’t have them at all.

Doug Criscitello: And the same is true for the justifications, although the big departments all posts their congressional budget justifications. But open question about how easy it is to find, how many do they post? Do they go back five years or 10 years? So it’s sort of done in a haphazard way right now. So one of the upsides of this new law is that there wouldn’t be a much more uniform approach to posting these documents.

Tom Temin: What about that provision that agencies have to account for and then post information on both obligated and unobligated funds, which they sometimes have at year end?

Doug Criscitello: Right. So the new law would require information on funds being made available. And that kind of information — what is the agency expended from its past funds, what does it still have available? That information will help inform congressional appropriators about budget execution at agencies, specifically where funding has been committed and spent and to what extent are true unobligated balances available to be reallocated for other purposes. It’s not always as simple, it’s not always a binary choice between obligated dollars and unobligated. There’s a path where funds move from unobligated status to obligated. That said though, there are true on obligated balances at some agencies that could be repurposed.

Tom Temin: Doug Criscitello is managing director for the public sector at Grant Thornton and a former federal chief financial officer. As always, thanks so much.

Doug Criscitello: Great to be here. Tom

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