OMB starts DATA Act implementation in high gear

F or all of the Obama administration’s reluctance and push-back against the Data Transparency Accountability Act or DATA Act as it was going through Congress, give them credit for meeting the first major statutory deadline of the law on May 7.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department capped off Public Service Recognition Week May 8 by showing what a little hard work and intragovernmental collaboration can result in. OMB and Treasury released a set of 12 finalized data elements, 15 data elements for final review and 30 others that need to go through the public and agency comment phase. The two agencies also made public the process to digitally tag award data through the eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) format, known as the DATA Schema.

OMB also issued the first DATA Act guidance, which calls for agencies to designate a senior accountable official to lead the law’s implementation.

Finally, Treasury borrowed a page from OMB and created a DATA Act Playbook, highlighting eight steps for implementing the law.

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“Where we are now is at a very critical point. By releasing concrete deliverables, the first one deals with OMB policy guidance, we are sending clear direction from OMB to governmentwide entities saying here are DATA Act requirements and here is what’s expected over the next two years,” said OMB Controller David Mader in an interview with Federal News Radio. “I think this begins the significant effort on the part of the departments across the government to begin their own planning and some implementation at their level.”

Mader said by designating a senior accountable official in charge of the implementation, OMB ensures there is a single point of contact to deal with issues. That is one of the main reasons previous data transparency attempts found limited success at best.

The DATA Act is the follow-on law to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (FFATA). FFATA was sponsored by former Sens. Tom Coburn (R- Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006. While the Bush administration supported the ideas in FFATA, implementation fell well short of spirit or intent of the law.

So as Congress recognized the changing technology and data environment, lawmakers set out to create a new law.

OMB pushed back against early versions of the DATA Act, saying it wasn’t necessary and would be too burdensome for agencies.

But as Congress inched closer to passage, OMB warmed up to the law and now is taking on this enormous challenge of making all spending data more accessible, usable and transparent with more vigor and dedication than many thought they would have.

Treasury’s release of the playbook, may, in the end, be one of the key implementation documents released Friday.

“We are asking them to put together a team in each agency that is familiar with the systems and data within agency, and are asking them then to take look at data standards and see where the data resides in their internal systems,” said David Lebryk, Treasury’s Fiscal Assistant Secretary, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We put together a team that took a typical agency to see where the data elements reside, the grant or the procurement or the financial management system. In some cases, it resided in multiple systems, and sometimes the data was defined and used in different ways.”

Treasury also conducted a mapping exercise between the data elements and where they currently reside in the agency’s systems.

Lebryk said one of the plays is for agencies to do their own mapping and then move toward the concept of data tagging.

“Once you identify where the authoritative source is, then how do you map and move to a data broker, at which point the information is translated into the schema, which will make the data more usable and transparent,” he said. “This will be a significant undertaking so that’s why what we did was so important. It gives them a fair amount information to get them way down the path. We said in a standard organization here are the processes that provide information, the systems the information resides in and gave them charts of the different kind of mapping we’ve done. We are not asking them to start from scratch. It is complicated and that is one of reasons we have not had more transparent data sooner.”

OMB, which will issue additional guidance around the DATA Act implementation plans later this month, said in the memo agencies should propose an implementation timeline, identify any potential challenges and suggestions to mitigate them and resource estimates.

Mader continues to push the fact that the implementation goal focuses on a data-centric approach rather than building new systems or new databases.

Reaction to the policy and related data standards, schema and playbook has been mostly positive.

“Our industry is encouraged by Treasury and OMB’s evident willingness to eventually enforce the data standards they’ve announced. If these common elements and schema are imposed and used consistently across all federal financial, budget, payment, grant, and contract reporting, then our government will be able to deliver on the promises that Rep. [Darrell] Issa and Sen. [Mark] Warner first made when they introduced the DATA Act four years ago next month,” said Hudson Hollister, president of the Data Transparency Coalition. “Federal spending reports can be accessible to citizens, searchable for managers, and automatic for grantees and contractors.”

Mader said he and Lebryk have met with staff members on the House Oversight and Government Reform and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees. The congressional staffers mostly offered positive feedback on the data schema, standards and other initial releases, Mader said.

Mader said the two also plan on meeting with agency inspector generals, and Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General, who has promised Congress he would pay close attention to the law’s implementation, in the coming week.

“Streamlining this data will be no small task and I applaud them for putting forward a comprehensive and innovative plan to achieve these important goals,” Warner said in a release. “I look forward to working with the administration on these continued efforts to create a more data-driven and transparent government and I will keep monitoring this process to make sure that this progress continues.”

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.