Agencies plow ahead with DATA Act despite big hurdles

The executive branch has gotten the DATA Act off to a good start by meeting its first deadline, Obama administration officials, auditors and lawmakers agreed Wednesday. But persistent problems with the data itself threaten to undermine the financial transparency that the law is intended to achieve.

The Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget — the two organizations spearheading the law’s implementation — established governmentwide data standards in May, as the law required. To date, they have defined 27 of a total of 57 data elements, which include information commonly requested on financial documents, such as “object class,” “program activity” and “award description.”

OMB Comptroller David Mader and Fiscal Assistant Secretary of the Treasury David Lebryk updated members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on their progress during a Congressional hearing. U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office, and Treasury Assistant Inspector General for Audits Robert Taylor also testified.

The DATA Act requires the government to standardize all of its financial information so that it can be analyzed across contracts, programs and agencies. That will be essential to pinpointing government waste, program overlap and duplication, Dodaro said.

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While he commended the agencies for meeting the May deadline, he urged them to resolve inconsistencies inherent in the data. Over the years, GAO has spotted hundreds of billions of dollars in incorrectly reported awards. Few of the awards posted to the government’s USASpending.gov website match agency records, GAO found in a 2014 audit. Furthermore, Treasury and OMB’s draft technical specifications may lead agencies to inconsistently report information, Dodaro said.

Lack of program inventory undermines DATA Act goals

The biggest hurdle the government faces may be the lack of a complete list of federal programs. Without it, Dodaro warned, it’s impossible to have a complete picture of federal spending. GAO has urged Treasury and OMB to accelerate efforts to build that inventory as they prepare agencies to follow the DATA Act. Right now, he said, the picture is so fragmented that not even the Education Department has a comprehensive list of at least 82 federal programs that address teacher quality.

The government might not have that list until after May 2017, when agencies are to begin reporting financial data according to the new standards, said Mader. The government has had trouble assembling that list because each agency has its own definitions for programs and even the activities within those programs.

That has made it impossible to compare programs across agencies, he said. Treasury and OMB are starting again with a new tactic. They are focusing on the more than 3,800 program activities throughout the government.

“In the DATA Act, we’re refining them and ensuring that everybody understands the definition of program activities,” he said. “Our goal is to perfect program activities and get that right across government.”

Mader said OMB and Treasury will start on that project in fiscal 2016. There is no timetable for completion.

“Whoa,” reacted Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). “I’d encourage you to bump that up and do aggressive work to get those programs defined. That’s the only way we gain control — as I understand it — on what the size, scope, cost and responsibility of government is.”

Mader warns Congress may shortchange DATA Act effort

Agencies will deliver in September their plans for implementing the DATA Act. That should give the administration a better sense of the resources needed to meet the law’s objectives, Mader said. But in the meantime, the Obama administration has requested $86 million for fiscal 2016, based on a Congressional Budget Office estimate of the costs at $300 million over four years. But House appropriators have set aside $25 million for just four agencies.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), the chairman of the Information Technology Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, questioned the need to spend so much money on what he called a simple solution.

“This is something that I’ve spent time doing in the private sector,” he said. “Someone is maintaining these systems already. Somebody is already putting data into this system. Why do we need more people and more resources to come in?”

Dodaro said he did not think that identifying the 57 data elements required would take a lot of resources. He suggested that some money allocated for agency IT spending could be used on DATA Act compliance.

“There’s a lot of money being spent now by the federal government to produce inaccurate, incomplete data,” he said. “Our estimate is that in this current fiscal year, there is about $900 million spent on financial systems upgrades across the government. Some of that money potentially could be re-prioritized to come into compliance with the standards.”

“Amen, brother,” Hurd said.