Rep. Foxx planning ‘GREAT’ legislation to standardize grant data

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A North Carolina congresswoman is offering a way to help the federal government keep better track of its $600 billion in grants.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) announced she is introducing the Grant Reporting Efficiency and Assistance Transparency Act, which builds on the standardized spending reports now required under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.

“This bill will ensure the modernization of reporting by grant recipients, by mandating a standardized data structure for the information that recipients must report to federal agencies,” Foxx said during the Data Foundation’s Sept. 27 Data Transparency event. “It assigns to the executive branch the task of establishing these data standards. The bill also creates goals for these new standards, including searchability, consistency with accounting principles, and a non-proprietary product. The bill will ensure the executive branch consults with the grant recipient community and software providers to accomplish this. We named it the GREAT Act for a reason. The results of the passage will be great for stakeholders, government agencies, job creators, grantees and grantors.”

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Foxx said the bill is likely due out in the next few weeks. Asked by Federal News Radio whether she had any bipartisan support or interest in the Senate, she said it was still early in the legislative process.

“If the government is going to dole out $600 billion, then we must utilize the incredible technology we have at our disposal to streamline the federal grant reporting process and learn something from all that hardworking taxpayer money,” Foxx said. “Without updating the way we process grant reports, in many ways we might as well be still operating with a typewriter and a fax machine and white out.”

Foxx said congressional offices today have a limited number of staffers assigned to help grantees with applications, and that can’t rival the private sector’s ability to hire a team of specialists for the same job.

“That means often the small business who can’t afford to hire a team of specialists or afford the burdensome hours of filling out duplicative paperwork are not able to compete,” Foxx said.

The GREAT Act’s standardization would cut the hours of information processing, allowing grant recipients “to focus on actually running their programs,” Foxx said.

“And that’s very important,” Foxx added. “Too many people in the federal government — all over for that matter — spend more time putting in the paperwork to show they’re complying, than actually complying.”

Another problem is that the federal government lacks a central bank for grantees to report to grantor agencies. If the reporting requirements for grants are not easily searchable, Foxx said, this can and will continue to be inefficient and can empower fraud and abuse.

And while electronic submissions are a step up from using typewriters to submit grant documents, Foxx said, the grant reports are static, which means grantees have to enter the same information multiple times and none of it is aggregated.

“In order to fix the way federal grants are reported, we must move from a documents street to a data superhighway,” Foxx said.

The DATA Act required a two-part pilot that covers federal grants and contracts.

The Health and Human Services Department handled the grant side, while the Office of Management and Budget is handling the contracts portion.

“The DATA Act made great strides in increasing government transparency,” Foxx said. “Now we must tackle the reservoir of federal dollars which is grant spending. A firm foundation was laid by the DATA Act’s mandated pilot in terms of monitoring the benefits of data standardization.”

Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, said there’s no doubt grantmaking needs to be reformed in the U.S., but without actually seeing the text of the bill, he wasn’t sure how much the GREAT Act would address important issues like identifying who is receiving a grant.

“It’s very difficult if you’re trying  to do watchdog work, if you’re trying to do business intelligence work, if you’re trying to do anything to figure out which entity is which in terms of their receipt of funds,” Howard said. “Unless they address that root issue, I’m not sure how much this will address it or or not.”

A Foxx aide said the bill is not meant to change the grantee reporting process itself, and the standardization would come from OMB.

“One issue that surrounds this entire space is that each grant has its own statutory source, the way in which they report could be different from each grant to each grant and what information is mandated,” the aide said. “There may be a point at which people look to conform those things and try to help with this effort, but the touch is to try to have the OMB have a standard that does not try to change the essence of actual reporting processes.”

David Mader, a former OMB controller and now chief strategy officer for Deloitte’s civilian sector, spoke on a panel at the data event and said the DATA Act information feeding into the USASpending site does allow people “in a very comprehensive way and an easy way — a customer easy way — to look at where is that money going, who are the contractors, who are the loan recipients, who are the financial assistance or grant recipients.”

“I think where we are now, it’s sort of a foundation,” Mader said. “We know where the money is going, we know the amount of money that’s going out, and we know who has the money, but what we don’t know — this is I think the challenge for all of us going forward — is we know what we’ve spent but do we really know what the benefit has been for that expenditure.”

Mader said that’s why legislation like Sen. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act might be a next step in better usage of government data.

“Basically what his legislation does is says ‘OK, now that we know all this spending, we want to know it by program, and we want to know which agencies are contributing to which program, and most importantly we really want to know the results,'” Mader said. “We want to know what the benefits are for the expenditures. I think as taxpayers, as the executive branch, as part of the congressional branch, all of those stakeholders and all of us as taxpayers want to know are our tax dollars actually being spent and achieving the results that we expect.”

A lot of activity

Foxx’s pending bill isn’t the only legislation addressing data transparency and standardization.

Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) said there’s a lot of activity “on both sides of the Capital” for the OPEN Government Data Act. He’s introduced a House version with Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), while the Senate’s bill is attached  to the chamber’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“I think we’ve got a shot at actually seeing this policy get passed into law,” Kilmer said during a panel at the Data Transparency event. “It’s really seeking to codify the Obama administration’s open government data policy. We included some provisions to ensure that the data is not only available but also that it’s easily used. All of us have had that experience of accessing a government database and finding out it’s in a PDF that you can’t dive in to the numbers. Actually making it machine readable and open format and malleable I think needs to be part of the equation.”