On a recent May day at Booz Allen Hamilton’s Innovation Center in Washington, D.C., about 50 creative minds opened their laptops in a street-level conference room lined with windows and dry-erase walls, and dove into 100,000 federal spending reports.
About 30 hours later, the industry IT experts took the center’s stage to present their work during the first ever DATA Act Hackathon — an early opportunity to explore the standardized spending information at the heart of the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act.
“Our tagline is better data, better decisions, better government,” said Christina Ho, the Treasury Department’s deputy assistant secretary for accounting policy and financial transparency, during an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. “The examples that were presented [at the hackathon] really validated that. We knew that us implementing the data is about putting out better data, so the presentation demonstrated that when you use it, it could help you to understand better the decisions that are being made in what ultimately does lead to a better government.”
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In part two of Federal News Radio’s special report about the law’s rollout on May 9, the beta version of USASpending.gov is in the prototype phase and in September, Treasury will move it to the current USASpending website. In the meantime, agencies already have added spending data to the site. The data behind the new site will be available on the site’s Application Programming Interface, or API.
Ho and other DATA Act advocates have made it clear that May 9 is both a milestone and springboard for the federal spending report — especially as agencies’ data has been pouring in and everyone is encouraged to dip their toe in the data pool.
This was clear at the Hackathon. One of the first industry experts to get a feel for the new version of USASpending.gov was Srinivas Kosaraju, director for public sector solutions at Qlik.
Kosaraju said while the data does have some holes in it, the API allowed Qlik’s team to quickly create its own dashboard to let users scroll through the spending data. That’s a good thing, given that the administration’s focus is on “reducing the size of government, increasing the efficiency of government.”
“I know that there are big problems in government, but we have dedicated men and women who work in the government, who’ve been working here for many years,” Kosaraju said. “If we can help them to do their job just a little bit better, given the scale of the government, it’s huge savings for all of the taxpayers. So while we want to hit a home run, at the margins, there’s points to be made.”
Nichole Gable, a senior manager at Kearney & Company, who participated in the hackathon, said it was interesting to see the inefficiencies shown by the data.
“The opportunity to look across multiple organizations that have a similar goal, you now have a data set that’s not just constrained to one organization,” Gable said. “You can look across many organizations and what you can start to do is tie in other data points. This gives us the opportunity to do that. When you start to put the pieces of the puzzle together, you start to get a clear picture of what’s actually going on, you find opportunities for efficiencies and improvement.”
Ho agreed that tying together data points helps tell a clearer picture about the government. For example, the government gives out loans to help stimulate the economy. By linking data together, one can see how the loan helps create jobs and reduce the unemployment rate.
“I imagine that over time, as our data becomes more complete, or even adding more data — and also other types of data become more open and reusable — linking all of them together can give us really great insight about how well our policy is working,” Ho said. “This is really the first time that we would be able to do something like this at scale.”
Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Coalition, said the DATA Act is different because unlike other congressional management mandates, the law supports a “data-centric approach in which agencies have to get a handle on their spending information.”
Results are already showing.
Tim Gribben, chief financial officer and associate administrator for performance management at the Small Business Administration, said during the Association of Government Accountants and AFFIRM 2017 CFO-CIO Summit in Washington that not only is the data quality improving because SBA needs to ensure it’s reporting information correctly, his office is able to use the data to inform program evaluations.
“We’ve been doing program evaluations at SBA but not in a coordinated way, and what we found is by looking at the data and looking at it visually, we have been able to form what questions we want to ask for program evaluations,” Gribben said. “Are we operating effectively and efficiently, and are we holding the program offices who are responsible for these programs accountable?”
That informs the evaluations SBA will do moving forward, and when looking at grantee oversight, more information is available about whether or not the agency is putting an undue burden on a recipient because the agency didn’t realize different program offices were giving awards to the same organizations and they also got awards from other government entities, Gribben said.
“We found something that we can cut, make things more efficient and hold the awardees as well as the program offices more accountable,” Gribben said. “That to me has been the greatest advantage I have seen from bringing all this together in the DATA Act.”
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Margie Graves, acting federal chief information officer, said the DATA Act is helping her office justify IT modernization.
Graves, who also spoke at the CFO-CIO summit, said common spending reports allow for the ability to make data-driven decisions, and get a cost baseline on your IT spending.
“Often times across agencies you can’t necessarily get the same answers when you’re asking the same questions, and the reason for that is because of a lack of standardization. And the DATA Act is driving us toward that as two communities,” Graves said. “When we’re talking about the converging of interest here, if I’m standing in front of a board that’s going to choose IT business cases for using the [Modernizing Government Technology Act] and the modernization fund money — which we’re trying to line up in Congress right now to actually do IT modernization — then my best line of defense is to be able to effectively describe what my current baseline is and show that when I adopt another technology through modernization either by going to the cloud, by going to shared services or by re-engineering my application itself, then I can show that [return on investment]. And if I can’t describe it in financial terms, then it’s not going to resonate and it’s not going to have a business case.”
The DATA Act has its supporters, but that doesn’t mean continued implementation will be easy.
David Mader, former Office of Management and Budget controller and now chief strategy officer for Deloitte’s civilian sector, told Federal News Radio in an interview that there are cultural and technical challenges for the future of the DATA Act.
He is the lead author of a new report, titled Data Act 2022: Changing Technology, Changing Culture, which looks at the next five years and what it will take to reach a complete roll out of the DATA Act.
While the technical challenges do pose some hurdles, Mader said the real work lies in the cultural changes.
“Getting the organization to recognize that we’ve built this foundation and it is only a foundation,” Mader said. “How do we now go build the first floor and the second floor and then build out the rooms on each of those floors? Getting the resources at the agencies to continue to build on those foundations, I think, is critical because it’s going to convince the organization that if we can unlock this data, then on the mission side that will enhance their ability to actually deliver the frontline mission in a much more effective way.”
Hollister said while there might be inconsistencies in the data right now, the DATA Act’s full implementation will help grow a cohesive data set.
“It’ll be the main one and it’ll be the one version of the truth and other compilations will have to be adjusted to match it or it will have to be corrected based on the other compilations,” Hollister said. “It needs to eventually become completely comprehensive for the public sector spending information. We need to have a searchable data model that encompasses financial reporting and grants and contracts from agencies as it does today, but also includes all the information that grantees are obliged to report.”
That includes things like the president’s proposed budget and congressional appropriations laws, Hollister said. Once there’s a data model that covers all of that information, “so much of the manual copying and pasting and manual review that’s involved in federal financial management will simply go away,” he said.
Agency inspectors general are by statute required to audit data quality, Ho said, and they have already developed programs and some are already working with agencies to audit the process and the data.
“We expect there will still be a lot of education that we have to do and feedback that we have to get because this is the first time people ever had this kind of data put together in a very structured and standard way here,” Ho said. “We expect that we will get more feedback. This is just the beginning even in terms of the website features. We expect that we have to continue to be responsive to the public and the users’ feedback and make enhancements as needed.”