Feasibility of DATA Act questioned even as Senate committee OKs it

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday approved its version of the DATA Act. The approval sets in motion a short path toward new requirements for agencies to standardize and make data more accessible.

But some agency leaders who would be charged with implementing the bill are unsure the DATA Act can be brought to life successfully.

Officials said the government can improve how it makes data accessible and publishes procurement and other spending information. But the DATA Act may be asking for things that aren’t pragmatically possible.

“I think the DATA Act, not only on transparency, but if it passes, on data standards, will be difficult to implement,” said Dick Gregg, the fiscal assistant secretary at the Treasury Department, at the Association of Government Accountants CFO survey event in Washington Wednesday. “At the same time, there are real values and not many of us disagree with the goals, but the question is, how can we manage in the financial community to implement that with a goal of maybe well beyond the years that are in the act right now. But [we can] do some things in the mean time to satisfy those requirements, [and] really look to the future about how we should be managing data and providing more transparent information more accurately and timely to the public.”

He said spirit of the DATA Act is important because figuring out program costs and presenting them at a granular level so people can understand it is a laudable goal. He said agencies have struggled to reconcile data, especially procurement information, to help their decision making process.

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“I think the government, in my view, has the need to do more in the data standards areas. We have pockets of data standards, we don’t really have data standards that run across the government,” Gregg said. “The trick is to select a number of data standards that will help pass information back and forth, but not have such a huge number that it stops the machine from running. It’s a challenge, but I think it’s one that’s needed whether or not the DATA Act passes.”

Second generation of FFATA

When asked if the DATA Act was too broad in the standards it’s calling for, Gregg said it wasn’t, but there is a need for more work on data standardization across the government.

The DATA Act would require the use of data standards as a way to make information more publicly accessible, help root out fraud, waste and abuse and fix some of the shortcomings of the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA).

“It makes it easier to compare federal spending across federal agencies by requiring the establishment of these governmentwide financial data standards. It strengthens FFATA by reforming and significantly improving USASpending.gov website, requiring monthly funding updates from each federal agency appropriations account, program activity and object class,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former OMB director and one of several co-authors of the bill. “It promotes greater accountability for federal funding by regular IG and GAO reporting on completeness, timeliness, quality and accuracy of data submitted to USASpending.gov. Finally, it simplifies federal award reporting by eliminating unnecessary duplications and streamlining what are now burdensome reporting requirements.”

Portman added each of these is aimed at enhancing federal financial accountability through transparency and data quality.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the amendment in the nature of substitute unanimously.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved companion legislation in May, but it has not been brought to the floor for a full vote.

The bills differ in several ways, so if both bills make it through their respective legislative processes, lawmakers and the White House would have to figure out a compromise.

The administration hasn’t offered an official position on the bill, but support seems to be growing.

Accountability provisions missing

The Senate’s version of the bill isn’t giving just government officials concern.

Hudson Hollester, the president of the Data Transparency Coalition, said the Senate’s version leaves out some important provisions that are included in the House bill. He said he’s disappointed that the Senate’s version removes the expansion of the Recovery Act’s accountability platform and puts the Office of Management and Budget in charge of the pilot program for recipient reporting.

OMB and Treasury already are moving down the path of improved data standards and data accessibility, whether or not the DATA Act becomes law.

OMB in June issued a memo telling agencies to improve their data quality on USASpending.gov. OMB also in the 2014 budget request to Congress said it would move the responsibility of USASpending.gov to Treasury from the General Services Administration.

Since that memo, OMB has been meeting with agencies and vendors about how to improve the portal. One recent meeting included vendors, OMB, the Defense Department, the Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GAT Board) and Treasury.

“Things that we thought were an issue were less of an issue, but things we hadn’t thought of were much more on people’s minds,” said Norman Dong, the interim controller at OMB. “For example, one thing that came up during those conversations was the quality of the help desk support. There’s information on USASpending.gov, but you aren’t always getting an answer when you call the help desk, so that might be an area that we focus in as a very short term, something we can improve quickly type of activity.”

Cost vs. usability tradeoffs

Dong said another longer term area of improvement would be the completeness of the data on the portal.

He said there is a lot of detail about contracts and grant awards, but not the totality of federal spending.

“We recognize that if we want to be able to answer that question of completeness, we might do it through USASpending.gov, or through some other means, like we used to do it through the CFFR,” Dong said. “We heard from those conversations that folks found the CFFR very useful as a complete snapshot of federal spending.”

The CFFR is the consolidated federal fund report, which tracked almost all federal spending by agency, program, object code, state, Congressional district and county. Congress terminated the report in 2011.

Jim Taylor, the Labor Department’s CFO, said whether or not the DATA Act becomes law there is a growing expectation by businesses and citizens to gain access to higher quality information, and that will drive the government to change.

Dong said every agency will have to make tradeoffs between what people want and what they can realistically provide.

“After that meeting we had, it said the top 10 things USASpending.gov can’t answer. I was going through it and said, ‘This one is pretty easy, this one is pretty straight forward, and this is going to be like moving mountains,’ so I think it’s worth it and people appreciate the candor in terms of having that conversation about the effort involved relative to the utility that is derived,” he said. “One other example, I know we have been talking a lot about having expenditure data on USASpending.gov versus obligation data. Maybe I have limited data points, but in the two meetings we’ve had so far that has not come up. We perceived it as there’s a huge demand for that. But when we heard from the users … that wasn’t high on their list.”

The Senate committee Wednesday also passed the Data Center Consolidation Act. The legislation basically codifies the Obama administration’s data center consolidation initiative. The bill requires the 24 CFO Act agencies included in the original initiative to submit comprehensive inventories of existing data center to OMB, as well as multi-year strategies to consolidate and optimize their data centers. Agencies would identify their estimated cost savings from consolidation and OMB is then required to summarize progress on the initiative to Congress on an annual basis.

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