‘Laundry list of problems’ from DoD audit driving new data systems

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The reports from the Defense Department’s first-ever audit don’t go to the Office of Management and Budget for another two weeks, but DoD is already seeing some benefits. DoD Comptroller David Norquist said the audit forced the department to embrace data analytics on a more granular level, and that’s enabling better decision-making.

Before the audit, DoD relied on summary reports, not the actual data itself. But in an audit, all the data that goes into those reports becomes suspect and has to be verified. Auditors have to ensure the count, the location and the condition of equipment, supplies, everything. If the databases aren’t accurate, that can show accounting issues, process control breakdowns, even cybersecurity issues.

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So DoD had to switch to systems that produce transaction-level activity. And that opens up possibilities for analytics that DoD hasn’t fully explored.

“The amount of things you can do with transaction level data really changes the type of business intelligence you can use,” Norquist told a room full of industry executives at an Oct. 29 Professional Services Council event. “So I think when we get back to the issue of the audit, you want to get past the point of focusing on the statement, to what can I do with the underlying transactions? And the business intelligence reports you can generate to help leadership make better decisions with better data, that’s what you’re looking for.”

There’s not much analytics can do with a summary report, Norquist said, since the information provided is limited, and relies on sampling. What analytics can do is examine billions of fields of data and find the nature of underlying problems.

Norquist told Federal News Network that DoD is currently doing pilots to incentivize using this data, getting it in front of people so they can see the results firsthand. The pilots work to improve data, collect transactions, and produce dashboard reports.

“The ability for this to transform the way that a function manages and operates is dramatic,” Norquist said. “And I’d encourage you to keep that in mind if you work in that field, because the ability to put these tools in the hands of your clients, and allow them to be able to make these sorts of changes is going to be a big difference for us.”

That was a major theme Norquist continued to touch on: DoD is going to need contractor help to solve the problems the audit uncovers. He encouraged representatives from industry to try to understand what those problems are, and come to DoD with solutions.

“It is very hard to go in and talk to a government organization or client about a cool idea, because we are very busy, and we have lots of problems, and we have things we are trying to do. And it may be a lovely, cool idea, but I can’t figure out how to make it connect with what I’m doing,” Norquist said. “It is very different to walk in to someone who has a problem, and bring them a solution to that problem. The audit will be a laundry list of problems we are trying to solve. And an opportunity to you to help us solve them.”

And DoD is uncommonly well-positioned to take advantage of industry solutions: it’s operating under a full budget at the beginning of the fiscal year for the first time in two decades. It’s been so long, Norquist said he has staff who’ve never seen it happen before.

“I was in a meeting where, even though everything looked on track, I warned them and said ‘just in case, I’ve got the information on what we’ll do if there’s a [continuing resolution] or a shutdown.’ And one of the folks in the meeting said ‘David, we’ve heard that briefing from you. We know what to do in a CR or a shutdown. You need to let us know what happens if they enact the bill,'” Norquist said.