Senators calling for DATA Act pilot to get ‘back on track’

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan asking for information on how the agency ...

The Office of Management and Budget’s DATA Act procurement pilot program is behind schedule and off target, and a group of senators want to know why.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee sent a letter to OMB Director Shaun Donovan asking for information on how OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy plans to get the pilot, which is required under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, “back on track so it fulfills its statutory requirement by May 2017.”

“A recent Government Accountability Office report found that the procurement pilot is four months behind schedule, does not adhere to leading management practices and is unlikely to yield information that is broadly scalable to all contractors because it targeted a very narrow reporting requirement for construction contractors,” the letter states. “GAO recommended that OFPP redesign the pilot program to test data elements applicable to all federal contractors and create a project plan that incorporates leading practices in project management.”

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) signed the letter. Among the information the senators are asking to be provided by the end of May is:

  • The plan for completing each of the GAO recommendations including tasks, estimated completion dates and individuals responsible for completing each task.
  • A description of the General Service Administration’s role in the pilot as well as the tasks assigned and results they achieved.
  • OMB’s plan to implement GAO’s recommendation to incorporate leading management practices into the design of the procurement pilot.
  • How OMB is going to change its pilot to address a statutory requirement regarding aggregate award values.
  • How OMB will revise the procurement pilot to address GAO’s recommendation or describe how the results of the pilot program associated with construction contracting can be expanded to reduce the reporting burden for other types of contracts.
  • A summary of what data will be available by May 2017 and how it can apply to other contract reporting requirements.

A ‘re-plan’

The DATA Act will standardize the way the government shares its spending information, making it more transparent to other agencies and to the public. OMB and the Treasury Department are spearheading the full implementation of the law,  set for May 2017.

A requirement of the DATA Act — and what the senators are concerned about — is a two-part pilot that covers federal grants and federal contracts [or procurements].

The Department of Health and Human Services is handling the grant side, the GAO report said, while OFPP is leading the procurement side with the help of GSA’s 18F.

Auditors reported that they had concerns with the procurement side of the pilot.

The pilot looked at certified payroll data, GAO reported, however, “this narrow focus on certified payroll stands in contrast to the grants portion of the pilot, where HHS will explore several areas in which grantee reporting burden could be reduced.”

OMB Controller Dave Mader told a House committee that in light of the report, the agency would return  within 45 days with a “re-plan” of the pilot, to ensure the objectives of the DATA Act are met.

OMB also released a guidance memorandum, which Mader wrote “is to memorialize the policy decisions made during the establishment of the data definition standards in the spring and summer of 2015, and to clearly establish the authoritative sources which shall be used by federal agencies for DATA Act reporting.”

Telling a story

GAO has nine open recommendations on the DATA Act implementation. According to the GAO report, the four biggest hurdles for agencies when it comes to the DATA Act implementation are:

  • Competing priorities.
  • Resources.
  • Systems integration.
  • Guidance.

To address guidance, Treasury in early May issued its DATA Act Schema Version 1.0, which it had been working on for a year.

The schema, Treasury stated, “gives an overall view of the hundreds of distinct data elements used to tell the story of how federal dollars are spent.”

The schema is based on hundreds of comments that helped make the standards “stronger and better” because of agency input, said Treasury’s Amy Edwards, senior adviser for financial transparency, during a May 17 financial management webinar.

“Everything is a part of those standards,” Edwards said. “It’s very clear what needs to be reported in a consistent way across the government and how it links back to those existing systems. Agencies don’t have to go in and change all their systems, they can submit it to that common framework and then the information is much more reliable.”

Edwards also said the DATA Act has been both a “forcing factor and a liberator” for agencies when it comes to sharing information.

“The data is very complex from a federal perspective. The spending cycles are complex and sort of how you share data in a way that folks will understand, especially externally, so that it’s not misinterpreted in some ways,” Edwards said.

Treasury currently manages the website, which publishes a range of financial information at various times.

“Now we’re adding in a whole new spectrum of data, from the financial information coming from the agencies and we’re merging all of that data, all that new information coming in on a quarterly basis. So how do we bring all this data together, how do we present it accurately so that the agencies understand,” Edwards said. “That’s a big challenge for Treasury, is to present it in a way that is understandable to the public, to the agencies, it’s something they can readily answer questions to. I think we are moving toward a more open environment for sharing data, that’s been a big topic the last few years in government is get the data out there, but putting it out there in a useful way that the public can understand is really critical.”

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