Senator pressing agencies for DATA Act updates

A new standard for reporting federal financial information takes effect in a year, and the lawmaker who proposed that change is looking for a status update.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) recently sent a letter to 37 agencies asking for an update on how they are following the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act and preparing for its full execution.

“I … recognize the challenges that ongoing implementation of the law may present for agencies, including budget constraints, dependence on governmentwide guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of the Treasury, and the complexity of incumbent systems and business processes. However, by prioritizing implementation of the law and fully leveraging its potential, I believe that the opportunities for your agency outweigh these challenges,” Warner said. “I appreciate your efforts thus far to implement the DATA Act and fully leverage this potential.”

Warner, who introduced the legislation in 2013, asked each agency to share with him:

  • What resources has your agency spent on implementation of the DATA Act to date? Does your agency have any existing contracts aimed at facilitating implementation?
  • Has your agency issued a DATA Act implementation plan in line with the DATA Act Playbook? If so, please share this plan with me
  • How has implementation to date varied from your expectations, and what challenges have you encountered?
  • What resources does your agency anticipate needing in order to fully implement the DATA Act moving forward?

The Treasury Department and OMB are spearheading the implementation of the DATA Act, which requires the government to standardize its financial information so that it can be shared across agencies, contracts and programs.

“You can’t find any kind of level of transparency if you don’t at least have common definitions about what spends are, what transfers are, what’s a cost and what’s not a cost,” said Warner during an April 6 Senate Budget Committee hearing.

Comptroller Gene Dodaro testified at the hearing, and Warner asked about the Government Accountability Office’s January report on the DATA Act and whether or not agencies were on track to start rolling out reports by the scheduled May 2017 date.

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Dodaro said he had three concerns with the ongoing implementation. While data standards have been issued, Dodaro said that areas related to reporting — where an activity takes place, award descriptions or what exactly was done — need to be addressed.

“Those things need additional guidance, otherwise you will get information that will not be helpful,” Dodaro said.

Dodaro said the act requires technical standards so that information is machine-readable and downloadable, but agencies have yet to set those standards.

“Both of those issues are giving agencies pause and they won’t be able to finalize their implementation plans,” Dodaro said. “I’m hopeful that guidance on both these issues will be issued as soon as possible and be stabilized. The concern I have is that they not continue to revise things; otherwise the agencies will have a legitimate excuse not to be fully prepared to meet the schedule under the DATA Act.”

Dodaro also said he was disappointed that agencies have not set the definition of “programs, to come up with a program inventory of the federal government.”

“That’s been continually deferred since the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act,” Dodaro said. “They said that they do it under the DATA Act, now they’re talking several years after the DATA Act’s implemented, before that would be in place. That’s going to inhibit the ability to link the spending to program activities, which is one of the major objectives of that act.”

Dodaro also said he was concerned that the legislation would be coming out during the presidential transition.

“There’s huge opportunities here for loss of momentum, lack of clarity and guidance,” Dodaro said. “So I’ve encouraged them [the agencies] to put a permanent data governance structure in place to be able to do it.”

OMB Controller Dave Mader said at an April 5 National Academy of Public Administration event that there was still “a lot of work left to do between now and May 2017,” but within the next several weeks Treasury would be finalizing its DATA Act Schema (such as exchange standards, according to the DATA Act Playbook), and OMB had circulated its next set of guidance.

“That’s the two last pieces of information agencies need for them to finalize their implementation plans,” Mader said. “We need to work through the fall and into the winter in making the changes to the systems, cleaning up the data, then populating in May of 2017 the successor to USASpending. While it did get improved a little bit, we know that there’s much more work that needs to be done there.”

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